Settling down

Karl Miller

  • Young Emma by W.H. Davies
    Cape, 158 pp, £5.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 224 01853 1

‘Davies? Oh, he was a sort of natural, wasn’t he – like Clare?’ James Reeves’s Introduction to his Penguin anthology of Georgian poetry puts this absentminded question into the mouth of an unidentified intellectual of recent times. It refers to the author of the present book, who is also the author of the once-famous Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and of some six hundred poems. Young Emma is a sequel of sorts to the Autobiography, but it is a startlingly different performance. It will restore Davies, for a season, to the prominence from which he has fallen since his death in 1940, though there are others besides Reeves who have remembered him, and Old Mortality Larkin has removed the lichen from his grave with an ample display in the Oxford Book of 20th-century Verse. This posthumous fame, however, may prove to be of a kind Davies would not have welcomed. He was a strange person, and one whose interest in publicity blew hot and cold. This book is indeed the work of a natural, if by that we may mean someone who took to reading and writing as a bird to the wing, and who was a bit of a simpleton. In the supportive Introduction which he wrote in 1907 for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp George Bernard Shaw calls him an ‘innocent’. Davies – the wisest fool ever to escape from a dosshouse? The second of the autobiographies will cause some people to think of him as a holy fool rather than a wise one, while others will be quick to dispense with both adjectives.

Raised in Monmouthshire, he spent a footloose youth as a hobo and beggar, and actually lost a foot hopping freights in America. But he also worked during this time, as a casual labourer. The work was hard, and could be hard to find: these were the golden days of the past, when there was no work problem – in the sense we may assign to Ronald Reagan’s claim that there was then no race problem. In Davies’s America there was a race problem, and the Autobiography describes a lynching, treating it as a pretty satisfactory affair: the description, which could well at one time have helped to spread distaste for racism, is itself racist. The mob are stern dispensers of justice: ‘no cowardly hand’ strikes the Negro when he is dragged from the jail. He is strung up and a hundred bullets are fired at him. Shortly before this, Davies has been deploring the 39 cowardly cuts inflicted on a man by six Negroes, and shortly afterwards he is himself mugged by blacks who have not bothered to check, first, that he is worth robbing. He thinks this a crime that white men rarely stoop to: they check first, and ‘do not resort to violence, except it be their victim’s wish’. Blacks are ‘born thieves’. He does not say that in this they are like some of his own best friends among the tramps.

According to this account, the tramps he lived with were a ceremonious and grammatical body of men; they were not, pace Shaw, without honour; there were no wild men like the down-and-out depicted on this page by Don McCullin. The new memoir suggests that the old one was out to uphold a decorum: it is the work, for example, of a celibate who never mentions the subject of sex. The new one, by contrast, gives glimpses of dereliction which can bring to mind the world explored by Beckett: Davies himself is at moments Malloy-like. The earlier text is more intensively worked; it is stocked with very good yarns in which this strange person takes a romantic interest in ‘strange’ things. But it is the less truthful book of the two.

Conscious of himself as a creative genius, Davies was cultivated by London bookmen and clubmen as a natural in another sense again: as an untutored talent from the depths of the common people. Such phoenixes are, of course, a traditional and ancient thing, and the line taken in Shaw’s Introduction belongs to a long history of kindly condescensions. Here and there, however, Shaw gets Davies remarkably wrong, and exaggerates the extent of his deliverance from convention. This wanderer was not very licentious; this refugee from convention was following the convention of the rover, and of the rover’s return; when he wasn’t having adventures, sitting round camp-fires and touching householders for food and money, he was earning his living, and mustering the ambition to try for literature as a career. The author of the present book appears to look up with reverence from a low point in the social hierarchy: ‘His offer to marry her was made indifferently,’ he writes, ‘with all the splendid generosity of a young officer.’

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