"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

7 Apr 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jim Phelan's Thoughts and Writing


On Writing

Although Phelan's preferred environment was the open road, he was also drawn to the bustling, cosmopolitan centres of capital cities. But his real writing apprenticeship took place in the various prisons in which he was incarcerated on the rare occasions when he had access to pen and paper. When Phelan was first presented a notebook and pencil, in Maidstone prison, he was overcome with the enormity of the opportunity that now presented itself:

'I was an explorer in a field of science which was almost untouched. [...] I had an advantage over the orthodox penologists and commentators on jail-psychology. They dealt with reports, statistics, departmental accounts. [...] I had the men themselves, their chuckles and groans, their blood and sweat and excrement, the animal growl of the jail voices, the sniffing one another from afar, the lip-licking, saliva-drooling jungle technique of homosexual love-making, the fantasy hiss, the small sadism, the neurosis. Pioneering against my will, I had a whole new world to put on paper. I sharpened my pencil eagerly.'

But attached to the first page of the notebook was the customary prison regulations stating what Phelan was and was not permitted to use the notebook for. These included 'keeping a diary' and 'writing about prisons'! As all his writing would be closely scrutinised, it would take Phelan years of carefully crafted deception, sometimes discovered and punished (including using shorthand, prison slang, facts disguised with metaphor, and using foreign languages—including Gaelic and Latin—on alternate lines) to succeed in producing both his prison research and early drafts of short stories and novels. But in this he did succeed which would help him in his later success as a writer.

Phelan's time at his last prison, Parkhurst, was his most productive. He had managed to secure, for his own betterment, a writing course with an external tutor, and nearing his release (he had been turned down for parole twice already) he reports to having thirty stories, three-quarters of his first novel Lifer, and half of his prison memoirs, A Tramp at Anchor:

'Better still, the two stories I had sent to Margaret Cunningham had beenlucky. I knew that if I was ever released I would enter the literary world with a mass of good material ready to hand.'

When Phelan's post-prison writing career commenced he had occasions to visit various publishers in the West End of London and in the following passage describes his fascination for the Charing Cross Road (a description few would recognise today) on his way to sign his first book contract:

'It is a place of drifters, even if they live in cities. Bookshops crowd one another, and flocks of customers ... bustle in and out. At one end all the shop-windows are filled with music sheets, and all the crooked small alleys are filled with gossiping musicians. ... At the other side the narrow streets and alleys lead into Soho. Chinese and negroes, French people and Greeks and folks of a hundred nationalities move in and out of Soho ... Brass plates, squares of wood, or visiting cards held in place by drawing pins, indicate the offices of a thousand specialists. Tattoo artists and private detectives, theatrical agents and dancing schools, Chinese laundries and dealers in "rare" books, all function side by side ... There may be ordinary shops and offices, too. But I saw none of them that morning. I only saw the seething, multicoloured, polyglot, exotic crowd, like the populace of some giant paddincan [tramp hostelry], at a crossroads where all the highways of the world converge. It is a wonderful street for a tramp to walk through.'

Just such an environment also was the natural habitat of the ancient Cynic. Like the tramp, they felt just at home in the anonymity of cosmopolitan city centres as they did in the open countryside, as well as finding them rewarding places to beg and whip-up an audience for their own brand of storytelling. At any rate, sign his contract Phelan did, but the problem presenting itself was where was he to write? In the event, his agent offered him the use of his house in the country, complete with typewriter and paper. The house was in the village of Stony Stratford, conveniently situated near the London end of Watling Street, the old Roman road (modern A5). Delighted to be billeted near one of his old tramping meeting places, imagine Phelan's shock when he arrived at the gates of a manor house in wooded grounds, then received in the drawing room by servants complete with a tray and whiskey decanter. And write Phelan did, until the word spread among his tramp friends that one of their own was now resident in his own 'castle'. The tramp visitors to Stony Stratford became so numerous that Phelan had a visit from the local constable and was forced to leave tramp signs at strategic entrances to the village to warn his friends of impending arrest should they re-enter the community boundary.

Phelan's Writing Style

The opening passage of Tramping the Toby opens with the following warning to would be writers:

'Every year some forty thousand young men and girls decide to become famous writers. Fortunately for themselves, the vast majority take no further action in the matter. [...] Woolworth's used to sell a good workable fountain-pen for sixpence. Even in those days, one didn't expect a very posh fountain pen for sixpence. But I had one of the Woolworth pens, and it worked. Also I had a borrowed typewriter, on which I hammered industrially with two fingers.
     These two possessions could hardly be described as a magnificent outfit with which to commence a literary career. But the borrowed machine and the Woolworth pen, with eleven shillings in cash, made up the sum of my worldly wealth when I started to write.

As with Leon Ray Livingston, Phelan was aware of what made a successful novel in purely marketing terms. Unlike Livingston, Phelan is a cynic, in the positive sense of the term. He knows just how to please the publishers and readers while having the last laugh at their expense. As did Trader Horn, Phelan subverts the commercial with his own skills at storytelling. Of his short stories, he says that, 'There is always the central bit, which looks like the story. But never is.' And like the contemporary fictioneer Raymond Federman, who claims that all of life is a fiction anyway, Phelan also refuses to engage with the fact/fiction dichotomy:

'It may be true, or perhaps barely credible. But it never sounds true. Not until it is "married" to some other possibly true narrative, quite unconnected with it.
     Then the result of that marriage, the third thing, which of course is not true at all, sounds vastly more credible and convincing than either of its parents. Then you have a good story. ... But it is far more interestingbecause it is very unusualto see the first bits, the parents, the originals. [...] It is the difference between literature and journalism, to which many refer without being very clear of their own meaning. (But tramps know.)

Here Phelan is referring to the tramps 'line of guff', the fiction that tramps create to persuade their 'mark' (the one they approach for sustenance—see below for categories of mark) to part with food or money. Ignoring the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction, which it often is, Phelan is clear what is important from a tramping perspective that, 'Good fiction always sounds true. That is why the tramp survives':

'Then the writer is satisfied, because he sees his creation come alive, and because he is paid for it. (Which he would not be, for crude stories ...) The reader is satisfied too, having been told the things he or she wants to hear.'

The following aphorism appears in a later chapter from Tramping the Toby: 'Civilisation is a tottery business. The writer must never forget it, and the reader must not be allowed to remember it. [adding about his own writing that] If virtue did not exactly triumph, the readers faith in civilisation was not shaken.'

But although Phelan claims that he played the publisher's game when it came to some of his novels and short stories, in his autobiographical works he fully exploits his cynicism, openly sharing with the reader his writing processes and satirical thoughts on the writing business itself. He achieves this through the use of diatribes, aphorisms and multi-layered irony; and by the use of autobiographical fiction in both novels and autobiographies, where he plays the central character in expositions on everything from politics, economics and civilisation, to how to tell a good lie. He also was able to publish in several magazines the kind of uncommercial writing that he considered more accurately reflected real life, and in which:

'one did not have to pretend that all judges were just, all policemen honest, all middle-class women virtuous, all doctors reliable, all clergymen moral, and all tramps and criminals illiterate and degraded. One did not have to pretend civilisation was marvellous.'

These observations come from Tramping the Toby (1958), the story of Phelan's British tramping experiences and transition to professional writer. But ten years earlier, inThe Name's Phelan (1948), about the first thirty years of his life, Phelan was already a confident and accomplished writer who does not seem to be holding back in any way from shaking the readers faith in civilisation, and in their faith in the authority of the author in particular! This from the opening passages of the 'Author's Preface':

'For a teller of tales, a fiction spinner, such as I have been for most of my life, even before I was a writer, any attempt at a straightforward factual narrative is very difficult indeed. It is so easy, and the temptation is so great, to round off a passage or tidy up an episode, to make a neat story instead of the succession of inconsequentialities which a life story usually is.
     Add the fact that I have always rather tended to dramatise my own existence, as also that I would much rather forget a great many of the things which have happened to me, and that it will be plain that the ordinary difficulties of autobiography are for me multiplied.'

In the opening lines of the first chapter, Phelan then uses some borrowed satire to avoid insulting his readers directly, at the same time ensuring that his book will not disappoint—and it certainly doesn't. The Name's Phelan should appear among the great classics of literature, many of which it surpasses in more than one literary genre simultaneously:

' "Once," said the Mock Turtle, "I was a real turtle," and Alice felt inclined to say, during the lengthy pause that followed, "Thanks very much for your most interesting story." [...]

'I am a tramp. That is almost all my story. Now I shall write a long and, I hope, an interesting book about the things I have done. But at the end I have only amplified the statement in that short line.'
    
Phelan's first two books seem to have been a run-away success. He tells us that the first edition of Lifer (1938) sold out in a few days, and in the same week the first printing of Museum (1937) also sold out; prompting, in true Nietzschean style, the remark: 'Of course I had always known I was a genius. Hadn't my mother told me so, when I was only four?



Tramping in Britain

In 'Looking at the Road', Chapter Three of Tramping the Toby, Phelan describes the character of the true tramp and his own philosophy on tramping. He describes the tramp as a uniquely tough and resilient character from which lesser mortals who have attempted tramping are rejected through a weeding out process: 'no man comes into that heritage on false pretences. It is not mere physical fitness that makes for survival, but an attitude of mind.' There is a weeding out process, Phelan says, in which young tramps who do not make the tramping profession, 'kill themselves, by fear and worry, because they are not real vagabonds.'

Phelan asks his readers to 'consider the economics of the matter. What man should die of hunger when ten thousand people along the road will give him his dinner?' Why should he die from exposure when he can sleep in a paddincan (cheap lodging house) for eightpence, and when eightpence can be obtained in minutes by those with the necessary courage and skills? 'So it is not poverty that weeds out the unfit. It is just the fact that they are unfitnot physically, but by temperament. The road only wants one type of manthose who are not afraid of it.'

Phelan acknowledges that although the vagabond is one of civilisation's rejects, it is not the natural—even the human—world they reject, indeed that world belongs to the vagabond and provides them with a means of survival. In contrast, the rest of civilisation's rejects, in addition to being unfit for city life, are unfit to survive the rigours of the road also! Phelan understands that to keep a job and maintain a home for a lifetime requires tenacity and is 'no vocation for a weakling.' In response to the pressures of city life, such weaklings turn to religion, criminality, madness or death itself, and only the tramp—too strong to be killed by the hardships of unemployment, mentally too tough to be driven into madness, too honest to adopt a life of crime, and philosophically too shrewd to accept religion—has the strength to survive the tyranny of the civilising process.

'Some few, it may be said at once, some few from each of the other groups also find their way out on to the road. The petty criminal, the crazy wanderer, the religiously maladjusted and the starving worklessall turn up on the highways at one time or another. ... But they soon die, or go away to the monasteries or jails or asylums. Then at the end, the road has its own, the vagabonds, the wanderers, the homeless who are everywhere at home, as they have been since the days when there were no cities, no towns, not even a village or a cluster of huts.'

In the opening quotation of this post from Tramping the Toby, Phelan nails the whole philosophy of tramping, reminding us that long ago we were all tramps! Those who lived in settlements were the odd and the different. Now we all live in settled communities (whether transient or permanent) and regard with suspicion the nomadic vagabond in our midst. Picking up the same theme in The Name's Phelan, we are given what may be an indirect reference to the ancient Cynics. Phelan describes H.G. Wells' theory of modern vagrancy based on a study of Mediterranean civilisation in which a balance existed between nomadic shepherds in the countryside and city folk along the fringe of the sea:

'It would take a few thousand years to strike a balance. That balance had not been reached in the early days of Greece, for instance, and much trouble resulted, when some citizens just went away instead of getting on with their civic affairs. Restlessness we call it to-day, without knowing quite what we mean.'

Could this be the same historical event described by D. R. Dudley, in his A History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the 6th Century AD, when he reports that following the Olympic games in 167 A.D., the humbler classes were turning Cynic in such numbers that alarm was being expressed at the prospect of work being brought to a standstill? At any rate, Phelan procures from Well's theory the following strategy: when anyone complains that he is tramping up the Great North Road instead of completing a promised story, he responds, 'blame it on the Greeks!'

Such portrayals of Cynics and other vagabonds should not feed into the popular myth that tramps are lazy and work-shy. These ancient vagabond philosophers were renowned for their physical and mental training (askesis) and painfully hard work (ponos), the consistency and rigour of which carried the main burden of their message. When Diogenes was asked why he begged alms of a statue, he quipped back, "to get practice in being refused." Phelan also challenges the myth that the tramp is lazy when he says:

'No wage-worker ever laboured as hard as a tramp will, on occasion. ... The glib explanation of laziness will not serve. ... Compare the degree of tenacity required to keep a job, by going to the office each morning at nine without fail, beside that called for by a walk from Calais to Vladivostok or from New York to San Francisco. Yet people have walked those distances. With no purpose known to anyone on earth, not for pleasure or profit or pride, people have walked them. Tenacity!'

At the time Phelan wrote about tramping he refers to there being 9,000 men padders and 3,000 women on the road, with their own customs, their own 'larks' and 'lurks' (lines of subsistence and stopping places—see note below*), and methods of travelling. Of course, today there may be increasing numbers of homeless and unemployed ever dependent on the life draining institutions of the state, but in the West today, civilisation has done with the wanderer for good. As Jack Kerouac already observed in the 1950s in his book The Vanishing American Hobo:

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 …’

But, Phelan says, those few who are left carry on in the old way, trusting the natural world and 'the road' for survival. They just go along, 'contemplating existence' and 'coming to know much about men and women. ... That state of mind and that way of life make for survival. The real vagabonds, the gypsies and tramps, only die from accident or from very old age.'

There is also the myth that tramping is necessarily a solitary profession. Phelan stands on its head this conventional view of tramping, arguing that compared to city dwellers, the tramp has far more human contact and of a more intimate nature. In the example below he does not even include all the numerous other tramping acquaintances on the road:

'The man and his wife will know one another's relatives, but not the neighbours of those relatives. Also, they will know a few friends from office or workplace, but will have little contact with those people's other acquaintances. ... Really the city folk know very few people as friends ... They sometimes group together in big crowds, at a football match or a political meeting ... But on these occasions each citizen is just a lost unit, in the middle of a thousand strangers. A city is a lonely place.
     Now consider the padman. He knowsit is his trade to knowall the people in every good-sized house along his next day's road ... Those people are not his friends, but he knows them ... they are his benefactors, and may have been so for years, are interested in his survival and his strange way of life ... He knows who is good-humoured, who is generous, and who is mean ... who is away in London, or who has 'flu. ... But all the above remarks apply only to one stretch of the padman's road, one day's journey.

Phelan also comments on the ageless appearance of the tramp. Because they wear beards and their hair long, tramps look like ancient men even when they are young, and continue to look this way for the next fifty years or so:

'It will explain why Dicky Tom Cosgrove, when I was seventeen, looked and talked like my grandfather. While twenty years later he looked and talked like my father. ... I have often thought that Tommy could write a marvellous book about civilisation, merely by describing the Holyhead Road as he has known it since a young tramp.'

Phelan dismisses the notion that just because the tramp can't stop wandering, that they do not have a longing for 'home'. The difference is that the tramp's home is everywhere, and to illustrate the point he talks about sauntering through country villages day after day, scrutinising each one as though he had been born there: 'It is the drifter mentality, which a man either has or has not, that affection for a home which is not one place but may be a thousand places. ... The trouble with people like me was that we had a nostalgia for everywhere!'

*A word on the 'lurk':

'A lurk is place to which the vagabond returns often, for no particular reason. Every tramp has a favourite spot in each district, a centre to which he goes at times, when he is at ease or wants to be so. ... It is not home-love, or anything like that. Nor is it a return to some district where pleasant things happened in the past. It seems to be merely the adoption of some piece of road ... My own lurks are all very ordinary places ... A signpost outside Stockholm ... in southern France, at Arles, there is a small bridge where ... I have sat, for days on end doing nothing and being very happy ... A cross-roads near Faringdon in England, a patch of green grass with a road-sign, where I can relax and go blank-eyed and feel that the world is a good place.'

Phelan describes another contradiction of tramping, which is that although as 'free as a bird', most tramps movements are as predictable as train schedules. But there the contradiction ends, as Phelan also observes that, 'A bird's movements are very predictable indeed, for anyone who knows birds.' While on the subject of birds, it is interesting to note that Phelan in Gaelic (faoileán) means seagull; that tramp of the bird world who scavenges for food and hitches rides on ships!

Lastly, we have the observation made by Phelan on the tramp's lack of sentimentality:

'A tramp does not have much emotional energy to spare in pitying other people. Pity, as a rule, belongs to the towns. (It is largely an excuse and a compensation for cruelty committed elsewherebut, of course, it will be rather difficult to convince city folk of that!)

see my post on Charity Cannibalism


Classification of British Tramps

I have described in other posts the various distinctions and categorisations writers have made of the American vagabond. Here Phelan characterises the uniquely distinct differences of the British tramp:

   the 'padder' or 'padman' covers only five to ten miles a day because of calling at many houses along the way for a hand-out;
   the 'wheeler' travels more slowly still, not being a genuine roamer or a rogue, but rather a city dweller or pauper 'killing time, like a little boy not hurrying home in case he might be whipped', calling from one institution to the next, clinging to 'whatever civilisation has to offer him' and 'greatly preoccupied about security as any suburbanite with a headache about last month's bills;
   the 'topcock postman' is described as the opposite end of the scale as far as speed is concerned, hitch-hiking in cars and travelling hundreds of miles a day; the postman is a restless tramp, always wanting to go a little further even than his intended destination, and unlike the padder, he only has time to call at a few selected houses where he is known and can rely on a decent hand-out;
   the 'shuttler' comes between the postman and the padder, 'They always keep to the same road, never vary their routine, hurry along their shuttle in one direction and hurry back in the other, up and down like a squirrel in a cage;
   the 'drifter' is an amateur tramp;
   the 'deener' (tramp slang for a shilling) is a miser obsessed with collecting coppers and converting them to silver which the deener hides about their clothing;
   and a 'shellback' is a tramp who pretends to be sailor.

And on women tramps: 'Nearly all the girls on the road ... stick to padding. Also the majority of them are married or, as one might put it, engaged. Male vagrants outnumber the girls by three to one...'

On Begging

Phelan further classifies the tramp's mark into the following categories:

   a 'field day' he describes as, 'the psychological descendants of Good King Wenceslasthey will give money to anyone.'
   the 'soft mark': 'yields no great largess, but will give a penny or two even to a wheeler.'
   the 'ordinary call': 'is not by any means a fool but will reward a good well-told tale.'
   the 'hard mark': 'can only be approached by the cocks of the road ... The work is more difficult and the line of guff must be really good, but the rewards are greater.'
   the 'dead mark': 'is a person to be avoided by the normal vagabond. Outside his entrance gate will be the tramp-signs, warning the padman to get out of the district quickly, and stay out.'

Phelan compares the business of tramping to any other business venture. The employed person has an office or workplace in which they conduct their business, and a drawing-room at home where they relax and become 'themself'. The tramp also needs to take time off from their 'lark' and rest, smoke and dream: 'a field [roughly equivalent to the hobo 'jungle' in America] is the vagabond's drawing-room, as against the roadwhich is his workshop or office.' I have already mentioned what Phelan refers to as the tramps 'line of guff'. This is the story (fact or fiction, but usually an element of both) that the tramp invents about his or her circumstances, often supported by some documentary evidence that tramps use to verify their claims: 'the tramp lives on his story, and on his story alone, as a plumber lives by plumbing or a banker by banking ... and each tramp tells only one story'. And each 'line of guff', Phelan maintains, is a work of art, often refined over a period of many years in response to what works best and what does not and, furthermore, the 'line of guff' cannot be interpreted as outright begging, so ingenuity is required:

'Improvements and emendations are suggestedby the questions of his marks [intended victims]. Phrases and pauses which have not brought results are dropped. The devoted search for the right words! [...] To begin with, the tramp must not be begging. In Britain and America it is illegal to beg. So the vagrant's story must not ask for anything; it must merely indicate the man's need and leave the mark to guess the rest for himself.
     Secondly ... the story must be true. Demonstrably true, that is, for an unsympathetic listener such as a policeman. That is because the telling of lies is a crime in Britain ... If a tramp tells lies, and someone informs the police, the vagrant may go to prison for false pretences. So the ... 'line of guff' must be documented.
     Thirdly, it must not be too sad, or too shocking. No mark will really listen for long, if a tramp tries to explain that he has tuberculosis, leprosy and dropped arches [... it should give rise to] the atmosphere of the story, which is not meant to evoke pity for the road-wanderer but interest in that putatively-romantic background.
     As soon as the roadster has a basis for his tale, he goes over it day after day, altering it, adapting the tones of voice, making the pauses longer or shorter, putting a finish to it. At this stage the tramp has precisely the same job as the fiction-writer.'

In a six page yarn to illustrate his point, Phelan gives the example of a tramp acquaintance named Jockey Merritt. Jockey, who had been on the road for sixty years, had line of guff based on the fact that, although unsuccessful as a jockey, he had on two occasions ridden horses owned by a champion race horse owner, not the champion itself (who had won both the Epsom Derby and Oaks in 1908) but no matter. The association was there and he had a much worn race-card from those far off days to prove it. Jockey had learned by heart the names of famous race horses, their owners, jockeys, and racing incidents, with which he would regale his racing aficionado marks:

'That was all. Grooms and jockeys are generous folk. Merritt would get his "whip round" at almost any racing stable. On the farms or at the country pubs there would be a slight variation, because nearly everyone in England backs horses, and, human nature being what it is, punters will take a tip from almost anyone. Most certainly ... from the man who had ridden the winner of the Derby and the Oaks. (Or as good as.)'

To expand on Phelan's view that the impetus caused by wanderlust includes 'escaping from', as much as being 'drawn towards'i.e., when in difficulty head for the horizon, Phelan writes in his prison memoirs:

'Under the skin and on the surface, consciously and unconsciously, I am a trampthat is, a person who walks away from unpleasant things. Basically, every tramp, millionaire or pauper, is an unstable person who walks away along the road to seek a better environment and nicer people.'


More Tramp and Prison Philosophy

One clue to Phelan's views of the relative value of academic knowledge over intuitive knowledge, is demonstrated by him challenging us to consider just how better off we are for knowing whether our world was flat or round:

'Thousands of millions of people lived and died believing the earth was flat. They trusted their lives to that principal ... Then they died without ever having heard that the earth was round. The earth was definitely flat as far as they were concerned, and they died, hundreds of generations of them, without ever hearing a word to the contrary. ... Their earth, whether we like it or not, was flat.

And so now we know better. But how much better off are our lives as a result of this knowledge? I posed exactly this question in the fourth chapter of Cynicism from Diogenes to Dilbert:

'So what; if we can predict the movements of the planets, show that species evolve, or that matter is made up of atoms? What difference does this knowledge make to the everyday lives of most people? Of course we find using a computer more convenient than writing on papyrus, but are our lives made any happier as a result? Is our writing any more potent?'

Phelan provides us with the answer. In our headlong rush for scientific knowledge, we have lost the intuitive knowledge that enriched the lives of our forbears, relying instead on the books and the manuals to guide our lives. The Cynics also refused to believe what they were told by learned philosophers, trusting only information received through the senses. Phelan puts it thus:

'people who live in the wild regions, shepherds and explorers and vagabonds, those who travel the lonely roads and know the dark silent places of the earththose people have the old-fashioned habits of thought, and they believe in many things which the townspeople would call mere superstition ... and old fashioned and unscientific belief.'

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard makes exactly this point in his book Impossible Exchange. We can't escape the reversal of values, Baudrillard tells us, as we live in the world we have created for ourselves, and if that world has become meaningless, it is the price scientists and others have paid for trying to mine the world of all its secrets.

Attitude to Money

In Phelan's exposition on the tramp's attitude to money, we have another important link to the philosophy of the ancient Cynics. A mindset that Phelan tells us 'will be difficult, almost impossible, for any normal citizen to understand':

'A vagabond is a person who, quite literally, obeys the precept which is part of the Christian philosophy and many another. He takes no thought for the morrow, but trusts to luck and life, trusts that the road will furnish whatever he needs. [...] Consider the padman. It would be madness for him to buy a suit of clothes or a macintosh, even if he had the money, which he seldom has. So the vagrant pads his toby for clods [pennies] and deeners [shillings] ... In brief, the padder comes to regard the road not only as his bank but also a kind of universal store. ... If a postman required a piece of leather strap and five copper rivets he would buy them as he passed through some village. But he would have to "meet a mark" for the money first. Like the padman, he trusts to luck and life. ... There it is in a nutshell. In London they count the money. That is why the cities grew up. I had forgotten that simple fact, because I was from beyond the town walls.'

Like the Cynic philosopher also, who carried the minimum of possessions in a small bag or wallet, the tramp also carries the minimum required for subsistence. Of course the Cynics took their minimal existence to greater extremes than the average tramp, such as the description in Marcel Schwob's tale in the in The King in the Golden Mask and Other Stories, of the Cynic Crates: 'He lived stark naked among the sweepings, and he collected crusts of bread, rotten olives and fish bones to fill his wallet.'

Of the tramp's wallet Phelan observes the following:

'There is one safe general rule; the bigger the load the cheaper the tramp. The professional vagabond carries as little as possible. It may be taken for granted that, if an alleged tramp is loaded down with bundles and garnished with packages, he is either an amateur or a wheeler. ... Some of the shuttlers carry a kit bag, with clothes in, but most of the padmen have only a small bundle or, more often, a soldier's haversack with a strap. The postmen carry nothing except a tiny attaché-case, like a child's school satchel. ... Even the posting- girls (there are not many) travel light, nearly always carrying a diminutive attaché-case like men. Yet they are always well turned-out, able to ask for a lift in a smart car ... It has been my great good fortune to ride the road for many thousands of miles with a posting-girl. But I have never ceased to be astonished by her ability to dispense with luggage.'

We may assume here, as Phelan refers to girl (singular), that he is referring to his second wife Kathleen with whom he tramped until his death. There is an amusing story of Phelan tramping with a woman he met in Looe, Cornwall, postman style, each carrying no more than an attaché-case nine inches by twelve. It was warm spring weather, and the pair were lightly attired in summer clothing. They did not stop their tramp until they eventually arrived in Bjirdnung, 800 kilometres north of Stockholm near the Arctic Circle. As they had been travelling fast and had made Bjirdnung from the south of England in only eight days, it was only the sudden realisation that they were tramping in an Arctic winter in their summer clothes that they crossed to the other side of the road and tramped south again!

Phelan applies the same attitude to money and possessions to his life as a writer also, in his early career as a writer he ended up owing more money to his agent than he received:

'I was earning a good deal in small sums, from articles and a few short stories. But I never had a penny to spare. That dread clause "payment on publication" has served as the hammer to knock nails into many a young writer's coffin.
     The youngster waits and waits and then gets discouraged. Sometimes financial success comes after he has taken a job as a night-watchman or a bank clerk. Or after he has died.'

But Phelan's tenacity and obsession with writing did pay off in the end, and although it did not curtail his tramping, he made the transition, as he says, form a writer who tramps to a tramp who writes:

'I was happy. I had been the tramp, the convict, the smuggler, but now I was a townsman at last, walking down Charing Cross Road because it was the High Street of my village and I was at home. [...] This time I did not have to go wheeling, to await decisions. I had had my decisions and they had been good. If I never wrote another line I would still be a famous writer. Now I would go posting for fun. ... You could almost say, I remarked to myself, even while I read the tramp-marks on the road-sign outside Barnet, you could say I was a writing gentleman in search of material.'

Part of this transition from tramp to writer was forced on Phelan by necessity. Spending weeks on the road at a time meant that letters from editors and publishers were often picked up after important deadlines had passed:

'There had also been a letter from my agent, requesting me to telephone Warner Brother's studios at Teddington. There was a script on which I would almost certainly be put to work. But the matter was urgent, and I should phone at once. The letter was nearly a fortnight old.'

The effect of these demands on Phelan for action, were not ignored: 'Urgent business, I told myself, and tried to feel like a city man.'

In the end though, even his commitments as a writer brought him legitimate scope to continue tramping. Naturally, he had to research an article he was asked to write on tramping to Loch Loman, 'One could not very well vamp up such an article.' And similarly, when working on the script for the movie Night Journey (1938), a tale about lorry drivers working between London and Newcastle,  Phelan spent three weeks on the road because, 'I had to ride the road with lorry-drivers to get a feel ... into the thing.'   

Phelan acknowledges being constantly torn between, 'the road and civilisation, between existence as a houseman-author and life as a tramp.'

'The caged nightingale cannot sing, nor the captive buffalo breed. No tramp should have a master, and no writer should work for wages. That way the tramp and the writer cease to be. [...] A tramp cannot carry a typewriter and a lot of reference-books along the road'

But Phelan reconciled this conflict by acknowledging that he had no ties to one place, and that he could switch between tramp-writer and civilised person, 'at a minutes notice, and without disappointing anyone but myself.' Tramping the Toby ends with this upbeat assessment of a man who had comfortably accommodated all his aspirations without further conflict to mar his pleasure in lifean enviable destination, out of reach of most 'civilised' men and women: 'I got out on the road a great deal, collecting material. It was the next thing to being a trampI had found the half-way house.'  

On Prison and Death

Phelan talks much in his prison memoirs of his difficulty, and that for lifers in general, of maintaining physical and mental health. The prison regime was designed to sap the will and create automatons out of healthy, autonomous beings. Even many of those who physically survived a long sentence, were so emotionally traumatised by the experience that they were transferred to mental institutions on completion of their sentences. Phelan describes the professional criminal recidivist, those who had the animal resourcefulness necessary for survival inside, indeed, treated prison as their 'place of work', as opposed to the 'mug' or ordinary citizen, those whose outside skills or employment (banker, shopkeeper, schoolteacher, etc) served for nothing in prison, indeed acted as a handicap because they used logic instead of cunning in the face of simple minded and often brutal jailers.

While Phelan was more comfortable with, and accepted by, the professional crooks, he craved intellectual company and feared for the loss of his mind and spirit. His survival was at times severely tested, but he credits surviving his long sentence to his unique credentials. He was a scholar and a tramp, a blacksmith and a revolutionary, he had the intelligence to act dumb when required as well as smart when dealing with those who could make a difference, also, to work his way out of trouble using the many skills at his disposal. He became the head blacksmith at both Dartmoor and Parkhurst, and, when he met a girl outside the prison that he took a liking to, got himself transferred to an outside gardening detail in order to consummate his desires. But this was much later in his prison career, he had suffered untold inhumanities before this happier respite: 'In that summer I wrote three hundred thousand words. In that summer, too, I escaped from the sex-thwarting that had torn at my healthy body for years.'

On questions of life and death, Phelan proposes that it is only when a condemned man at the peak of good health that these two separate questions combine as a single philosophical problem, for: 'Life does not really admit the existence of death.':

'One feature of life, or perhaps I should say death, in that place [death row] was the constant, unexpected, and always prosaic reminder that one's business in the house was to wait, until a certain day and hour, for a man with a rope.'

On death-row, Phelan recalled tramping on long straight roads across the bogs of Ireland, 'looking forward into mist and and back into mist, the road running between like a narrow endless bridge.' Now, at the end of just such a bridge, hurrying into the mist at one end, Phelan is forced to consider the following conundrum of his own existence with a heightened clarity:

'unlike the majority of men, I had time to think about it, because the mist had appeared while I was at my mental zenith, not when I was on my death-bed. Further, I was able to think clearly, with a keen, alert brain, because although dying I was not sick.
     Above all, I had nothing to distract me, no luring thoughts or plans or hopes, had no future to plot and not even a signpost to read ... Wherefore I could peer into the mist, and consider it, without fear of external influence and without need for self-deception.
     It is a time of great testing, the time when a man is to die without being ill. Mean, small hypocrisies and puny facile deceits of self are thrown away, count as nothing, and a man, if he has a healthy active mind, may look at himself and his world without blinkers or blinds.'

On the eve of his intended execution, Phelan wrote a sonnet to serve as his epitaph. He also added the following commentary on the poem; one that corroborates my own claim that Phelan was both a Cynic and a Nietzschean philosopher:

'I had no wisdom to leave behind written for anyone, none for myself. All my philosophy would not have needed fifty words.
     I knew nothing about the beginning or the end of the world. Nevertheless, I did not approve of civilisation. People should not inflict their morality on others, especially children. Not three people in ten millions are capable of sustained, conscious, logical thought. Vast numbers of people are unhappy because we pretend this is untrue. The pretence is profitable to some. But the profit is very little, is not worth while.'

I do not agree, however, with the comments of Phelan's that follow this proclamation: 'That was not much wisdom for a man to leave at the end of his life.'


Return to Part 1—Jim Phelan's Life & Times



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