"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



12 Jul 2020

The Tramp and the Dog, by Chris Williams, 1975 — Book Review




Knowing I have a literary interest in both tramps and dogs, my son Max bought me this book for Father’s Day—not aware that Puffin Books are the Children’s imprint of Penguin. I approached the book with a certain degree of resistance, believing that a kids book from this period was likely full of clichés and sentimentality of the Enid Blyton variety.

Some of this certainly is present, with the inevitable happy ending, but there was much more beside and I found the book a delightful and informative read. Not least, because of a 108 word glossary of Romany and slang at the back of the book to support the use of these terms throughout the text. The tramp, Bill, had been born a Roma—he distinguishes between Roma gypsies and “diddies” (didicoy) or non Roma gypsies— but lost his home when, on his mother’s death, her caravan (vardo) and possessions had been set alight and burned in the Romany tradition. The story is of Bill, now in his latter years, and having confined most of his tramping to the South East England, setting off in search of his long lost brother who had headed off for North Wales following the death of their mother.


It is the dog, an abandoned border collie, that chooses to take up with Bill. The tramp is initially anxious to be rid of the burden of his unwelcome companion, particularly when upon trying to hand the dog in as a stray at a local police station, he is threatened that unless he purchases a license for the dog (which the officer is convinced he is trying to ditch) he will be summonsed. Needless to say, the two become inseparable and many adventures follow.


The book includes many of the prejudices and discrimination visited on tramps and gypsies by gorgios (non-gypsies) but paradoxically, even where Bill is the object of mirth from others, he manages to turn the tables on his tormentors. Such an example is Chapter 11, ‘The Trial’. Bill was persuaded, against his better judgement, to act as the witness to a burglary of a stately home, the grounds of which he had chosen to sleep in for the night. Here Bill’s ignorance of court procedure is used to highlight the even greater stupidity of the legal process and those who administer it. A great example of what happens when two different universes of discourse and views of the world collide:


     ‘Place your right hand on the Bible—’ began the man; Bill put his hands behind his back. He had heard that there were all sorts of ways to trick a person into leaving his fingerprints, and he didn’t want to involve himself anymore than he had to.

     ‘Place your right hand here,’ insisted the man, ‘and repeat after me; “I swear”—’

     ‘Cert’ny not!’ said Bill, ‘I ain’t going to swear in front of all they grand folk, I ain’t that much of a fool! Have me up for usin’ foul language next, they will—then where be I? He began to feel extremely annoyed.

     A laugh ran round the court. ‘My lord,’ began a man below the judge’s desk, rising to speak to him, ‘this witness is an illiterate vagrant—”

     ‘Oh no I’m not!’ snapped Bill. He didn’t know what ‘illiterate’ meant, but he knew very well what the police thought about vagrants.

     ‘I be a self-supportin’ traveller, sir. I be no more of a vagrant than what you are! Begging your parding.’ He bowed in the direction of this gentleman, who also wore a wig. ‘And I ain’t no litterer, neither,’ he added. ‘Allus clears up after meself, clean as a whistle.’

     The court laughed again, louder this time, and the judge leaned over his desk to look at Bill over the top of his spectacles.

     ‘No one is suggesting that there is any question of vagrancy,’ he said, ‘and I’m sure Counsel did not wish to cause any offence by his remark about you being illiterate. He was merely pointing out that you cannot read.’

     ‘I already said so, didn’t I?’ asked Bill, amazed at the stupidity of these people. Perhaps their long wigs made them all deaf.

     The judge sighed. ‘We quite understand that you are not familiar with court procedure. On this occasion we will waive the taking of the oath, and you may affirm.’

     Bill looked round, but could see no one waiving. The man with the Bible put it down, and fixing Bill with a warning look, said “Repeat after me: I solemnly and sincerely declare—” ’

     Bill waited, but the man did not go on. ‘Well?’ asked Bill irritably. ‘Declare what? I ain’t goin’ to declare nothin’ till I knows what it is!’

     This time the court rocked with laughter, which gradually subsided under the judge’s stern eye. He nodded to the man before the witness-stand who, who continued ‘ “To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” ’He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.

     ‘All right,’ said Bill, after thinking this over, ‘I’ll tell the truth.’

     ‘Then will you please repeat it?’ asked the man angrily. ‘ “I solemnly and sincerely—” ’

     ‘I jest said I’d tell the truth, didn’t I?’ cried Bill. ‘Ain’t that good enough?’ He was beginning to wish he had never agreed to all this. The sooner he could leave the happier he would be.

     The court was in uproar. ‘Silence!’ shouted an usher, and the laughter slowly died down.

     ‘You are holding up the entire proceedings,’ hissed the man in front of Bill. ‘For goodness’ sake get on with it, and repeat the proper words!’

     Bill sighed. ‘I sullenly since I’m ‘ere declare to tell the ‘ole truth,’ he said. ‘There. Now are you ‘appy?’

     It took some time for the court to settle down after this, and when Bill had reluctantly said the right words, Counsel for the prosecution stood up to cross-examine him.

     ‘You are William Wiggins?’ he began.

     ‘Course I am!’ answered Bill. ‘You ‘eard the bloke what called me in. Wouldn’t ‘a come, otherwise.’

     ‘Silence!’ called the usher again, as laughter threatened to break out.

     ‘And you are of no fixed abode? continued Counsel, giving him an icy look.

     ‘I ain’t fixed nowheres at the moment,’ admitted Bill. ‘but me abodes allus been about these parts.’ He was taking into account the whole of Surry, Sussex, and Kent. …


And so continues Bill’s court examination for a further three pages.


There is nothing predictable about rest of Bill’s story. He was simply making a direct a route as possible for North Wales to find his brother. And so how does Bill end up trying, unsuccessfully, to feed a 3 month old baby girl from a tin of condensed milk in a wrecked car in the middle of a Birmingham scrap yard? 



The generous illustrations in the book add to its charm and one can only guess that the illustrator, also named Williams, might possibly be related to the author—though Williams is by no means an uncommon name. I would be very interested to hear from the author or illustrator, or anyone who knows them, via this blog.


As it is not difficult for the reader to obtain a used copy of this book cheaply from the internet, those whose curiosity has been aroused should do just that.


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