Paddy was my mate for about the next fortnight, and, as he was the first tramp I had known at all well, I want to give an account of him. I believe that he was a typical tramp and there are tens of thousands in England like him.
He was a tallish man, aged about thirty-five, with fair hair going grizzled and watery blue eyes. His features were good, but his cheeks had lanked and had that greyish, dirty in the grain look that comes of a bread and margarine diet. He was dressed, rather better than most tramps, in a tweed shooting-jacket and a pair of old evening trousers with the braid still on them. Evidently the braid figured in his mind as a lingering scrap of respectability, and he took care to sew it on again when it came loose. He was careful of his appearance altogether, and carried a razor and bootbrush that he would not sell, though he had sold his ‘papers’ and even his pocket-knife long since. Nevertheless, one would have known him for a tramp a hundred yards away. There was something in his drifting style of walk, and the way he had of hunching his shoulders forward, essentially abject. Seeing him walk, you felt instinctively that he would sooner take a blow than give one.
He had been brought up in Ireland, served two years in the war, and then worked in a metal polish factory, where he had lost his job two years earlier. He was horribly ashamed of being a tramp, but he had picked up all a tramp’s ways. He browsed the pavements unceasingly, never missing a cigarette end, or even an empty cigarette packet, as he used the tissue paper for rolling cigarettes. On our way into Edbury he saw a newspaper parcel on the pavement, pounced on it, and found that it contained two mutton sandwiches — rather frayed at the edges; these he insisted on my sharing. He never passed an automatic machine without giving a tug at the handle, for he said that sometimes they are out of order and will eject pennies if you tug at them. He had no stomach for crime, however. When we were in the outskirts of Romton, Paddy noticed a bottle of milk on a doorstep, evidently left there by mistake. He stopped, eyeing the bottle hungrily.
‘Christ!’ he said, ‘dere’s good food goin’ to waste. Somebody could knock dat bottle off, eh? Knock it off easy.’
I saw that he was thinking of ‘knocking it off’ himself. He looked up and down the street; it was a quiet residential street and there was nobody in sight. Paddy’s sickly, chap-fallen face yearned over the milk. Then he turned away, saying gloomily:
‘Best leave it. It don’t do a man no good to steal. T’ank God, I ain’t never stolen nothin’ yet.’
It was funk, bred of hunger, that kept him virtuous. With only two or three sound meals in his belly, he would have found courage to steal the milk.
He had two subjects of conversation, the shame and come-down of being a tramp, and the best way of getting a free meal. As we drifted through the streets he would keep up a monologue in this style, in a whimpering, self-pitying Irish voice:
‘It’s hell bein’ on de road, eh? It breaks yer heart goin’ into dem bloody spikes. But what’s a man to do else, eh? I ain’t had a good meat meal for about two months, an’ me boots is getting bad, an’ — Christ! How’d it be if we was to try for a cup o’ tay at one o’ dem convents on de way to Edbury? Most times dey’re good for a cup o’ tay. Ah, what’d a man do widout religion, eh? I’ve took cups o’ tay from de convents, an’ de Baptists, an’ de Church of England, an’ all sorts. I’m a Catholic meself. Dat’s to say, I ain’t been to confession for about seventeen year, but still I got me religious feelin’s, y’understand. An’ dem convents is always good for a cup o’ tay . . . ’ etc. etc. He would keep this up all day, almost without stopping.
His ignorance was limitless and appalling. He once asked me, for instance, whether Napoleon lived before Jesus Christ or after. Another time, when I was looking into a bookshop window, he grew very perturbed because one of the books was called OF THE IMITATION OF CHRIST. He took this for blasphemy. ‘What de hell do dey want to go imitatin’ of HIM for?’ he demanded angrily. He could read, but he had a kind of loathing for books. On our way from Romton to Edbury I went into a public library, and, though Paddy did not want to read, I suggested that he should come in and rest his legs. But he preferred to wait on the pavement. ‘No,’ he said, ‘de sight of all dat bloody print makes me sick.’
Like most tramps, he was passionately mean about matches. He had a box of matches when I met him, but I never saw him strike one, and he used to lecture me for extravagance when I struck mine. His method was to cadge a light from strangers, sometimes going without a smoke for half an hour rather than strike a match.
Self-pity was the clue to his character. The thought of his bad luck never seemed to leave him for an instant. He would break long silences to exclaim, apropos of nothing, ‘It’s hell when yer clo’es begin to go up de spout, eh?’ or ‘Dat tay in de spike ain’t tay, it’s piss,’ as though there was nothing else in the world to think about. And he had a low, worm-like envy of anyone who was better off — not of the rich, for they were beyond his social horizon, but of men in work. He pined for work as an artist pines to be famous. If he saw an old man working he would say bitterly, ‘Look at dat old — keepin’ able-bodied men out o’ work’; or if it was a boy, ‘It’s dem young devils what’s takin’ de bread out of our mouths.’ And all foreigners to him were ‘dem bloody dagoes’ — for, according to his theory, foreigners were responsible for unemployment.
He looked at women with a mixture of longing and hatred. Young, pretty women were too much above him to enter into his ideas, but his mouth watered at prostitutes. A couple of scarlet-lipped old creatures would go past; Paddy’s face would flush pale pink, and he would turn and stare hungrily after the women. ‘Tarts!’ he would murmur, like a boy at a sweetshop window. He told me once that he had not had to do with a woman for two years — since he had lost his job, that is — and he had forgotten that one could aim higher than prostitutes. He had the regular character of a tramp — abject, envious, a jackal’s character.
Nevertheless, he was a good fellow, generous by nature and capable of sharing his last crust with a friend; indeed he did literally share his last crust with me more than once. He was probably capable of work too, if he had been well fed for a few months. But two years of bread and margarine had lowered his standards hopelessly. He had lived on this filthy imitation of food till his own mind and body were compounded of inferior stuff. It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12