The next morning we began looking once more for Paddy’s friend, who was called Bozo, and was a screever — that is, a pavement artist. Addresses did not exist in Paddy’s world, but he had a vague idea that Bozo might be found in Lambeth, and in the end we ran across him on the Embankment, where he had established himself not far from Waterloo Bridge. He was kneeling on the pavement with a box of chalks, copying a sketch of Winston Churchill from a penny note-book. The likeness was not at all bad. Bozo was a small, dark, hook-nosed man, with curly hair growing low on his head. His right leg was dreadfully deformed, the foot being twisted heel forward in a way horrible to see. From his appearance one could have taken him for a Jew, but he used to deny this vigorously. He spoke of his hooknose as ‘Roman’, and was proud of his resemblance to some Roman Emperor — it was Vespasian, I think.
Bozo had a strange way of talking, Cockneyfied and yet very lucid and expressive. It was as though he had read good books but had never troubled to correct Us grammar. For a while Paddy and I stayed on the Embankment, talking, and Bozo gave us an account of the screeving trade. I repeat what he said more or less in his own words.
‘I’m what they call a serious screever. I don’t draw in blackboard chalks like these others, I use proper colours the same as what painters use; bloody expensive they are, especially the reds. I use five bobs’ worth of colours in a long day, and never less than two bobs’ worth. Cartoons is my line — you know, politics and cricket and that. Look here’ — he showed me his notebook — ‘here’s likenesses of all the political blokes, what I’ve copied from the papers. I have a different cartoon every day. For instance, when the Budget was on I had one of Winston trying to push an elephant marked “Debt”, and underneath I wrote, “Will he budge it?” See? You can have cartoons about any of the parties, but you mustn’t put anything in favour of Socialism, because the police won’t stand it. Once I did a cartoon of a boa constrictor marked Capital swallowing a rabbit marked Labour. The copper came along and saw it, and he says, “You rub that out, and look sharp about it,” he says. I had to rub it out. The copper’s got the right to move you on for loitering, and it’s no good giving them a back answer.’
[* Pavement artists buy their colours in the form of powder, and work them into cakes in condensed milk]
I asked Bozo what one could earn at screeving. He said:
‘This time of year, when it don’t rain, I take about three quid between Friday and Sunday — people get their wages Fridays, you see. I can’t work when it rains; the colours get washed off straight away. Take the year round, I make about a pound a week, because you can’t do much in the winter. Boat Race day, and Cup Final day, I’ve took as much as four pounds. But you have to CUT it out of them, you know; you don’t take a bob if you just sit and look at them. A halfpenny’s the usual drop [gift], and you don’t get even that unless you give them a bit of backchat. Once they’ve answered you they feel ashamed not to give you a drop. The best thing’s to keep changing your picture, because when they see you drawing they’ll stop and watch you. The trouble is, the beggars scatter as soon as you turn round with the hat. You really want a nobber [assistant] at this game. You keep at work and get a crowd watching you, and the nobber comes casual-like round the back of them. They don’t know he’s the nobber. Then suddenly he pulls his cap off, and you got them between two fires like. You’ll never get a drop off real toffs. It’s shabby sort of blokes you get most off, and foreigners. I’ve had even sixpences off Japs, and blackies, and that. They’re not so bloody mean as what an Englishman is. Another thing to remember is to keep your money covered up, except perhaps a penny in the hat. People won’t give you anything if they see you got a bob or two already.’
Bozo had the deepest contempt for the other screevers on the Embankment. He called them ‘the salmon platers’. At that time there was a screever almost every twenty-five yards along the Embankment — twenty-five yards being the recognized minimum between pitches. Bozo contemptuously pointed out an old white-bearded screever fifty yards away.
‘You see that silly old fool? He’s bin doing the same picture every day for ten years. “A faithful friend” he calls it. It’s of a dog pulling a child out of the water. The silly old bastard can’t draw any better than a child of ten. He’s learned just that one picture by rule of thumb, like you learn to put a puzzle together. There’s a lot of that sort about here. They come pinching my ideas sometimes; but I don’t care; the silly — s can’t think of anything for themselves, so I’m always ahead of them. The whole thing with cartoons is being up to date. Once a child got its head stuck in the railings of Chelsea Bridge. Well, I heard about it, and my cartoon was on the pavement before they’d got the child’s head out of the railings. Prompt, I am.’
Bozo seemed an interesting man, and I was anxious to see more of him. That evening I went down to the Embankment to meet him, as he had arranged to take Paddy and myself to a lodging-house south of the river. Bozo washed his pictures off the pavement and counted his takings — it was about sixteen shillings, of which he said twelve or thirteen would be profit. We walked down into Lambeth. Bozo limped slowly, with a queer crablike gait, half sideways, dragging his smashed foot behind him. He carried a stick in each hand and slung his box of colours over his shoulder. As we were crossing the bridge he stopped in one of the alcoves to rest. He fell silent for a minute or two, and to my surprise I saw that he was looking at the stars. He touched my arm and pointed to the sky with his stick.
‘Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a — great blood orange!’
From the way he spoke he might have been an art critic in a picture gallery. I was astonished. I confessed that I did not know which Aldebaran was — indeed, I had never even noticed that the stars were of different colours. Bozo began to give me some elementary hints on astronomy, pointing out-the chief constellations. He seemed concerned at my ignorance. I said to him, surprised:
‘You seem to know a lot about stars.’
‘Not a great lot. I know a bit, though. I got two letters from the Astronomer Royal thanking me for writing about meteors. Now and again I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.’
‘What a good idea! I should never have thought of it.’
‘Well, you got to take an interest in something. It don’t follow that because a man’s on the road he can’t think of anything but tea-and-two-slices.’
‘But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things — things like stars — living this life?’
‘Screeving, you mean? Not necessarily. It don’t need turn you into a bloody rabbit — that is, not if you set your mind to it.’
‘It seems to have that effect on most people.’
‘Of course. Look at Paddy — a tea-swilling old moocher, only fit to scrounge for fag-ends. That’s the way most of them go. I despise them. But you don’t NEED to get like that. If you’ve got any education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life.’
‘Well, I’ve found just the contrary,’ I said. ‘It seems to me that when you take a man’s money away he’s fit for nothing from that moment.’
‘No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in HERE”’ — he tapped his forehead — ‘and you’re all right.’
Bozo talked further in the same strain, and I listened with attention. He seemed a very unusual screever, and he was, moreover, the first person I had heard maintain that poverty did not matter. I saw a good deal of him during the next few days, for several times it rained and he could not work. He told me the history of his life, and it was a curious one.
The son of a bankrupt bookseller, he had gone to work as a house-painter at eighteen, and then served three years in France and India during the war. After the war he had found a house-painting job in Paris, and had stayed there several years. France suited him better than England (he despised the English), and he had been doing well in Paris, saving money, and engaged to a French girl. One day the girl was crushed to death under the wheels of an omnibus. Bozo went on the drink for a week, and then returned to work, rather shaky; the same morning he fell from a stage on which he was working, forty feet on to the pavement, and smashed his right foot to pulp. For some reason he received only sixty pounds compensation. He returned to England, spent his money in looking for jobs, tried hawking books in Middlesex Street market, then tried selling toys from a tray, and finally settled down as a screever. He had lived hand to mouth ever since, half starved throughout the winter, and often sleeping in the spike or on the Embankment.
When I knew him he owned nothing but the clothes he stood up in, and his drawing materials and a few books. The clothes were the usual beggar’s rags, but he wore a collar and tie, of which he was rather proud. The collar, a year or more old, was constantly ‘going’ round the neck, and Bozo used to patch it with bits cut from the tail of his shirt so that the shirt had scarcely any tail left. His damaged leg was getting worse and would probably have to be amputated, and his knees, from kneeling on the stones, had pads of skin on them as thick as boot-soles. There was, clearly, no future for him but beggary and a death in the workhouse.
With all this, he had neither fear, nor regret, nor shame, nor self-pity. He had faced his position, and made a philosophy for himself. Being a beggar, he said, was not his fault, and he refused either to have any compunction about it or to let it trouble him. He was the enemy of society, and quite ready to take to crime if he saw a good opportunity. He refused on principle to be thrifty. In the summer he saved nothing, spending his surplus earnings on drink, as he did not care about women. If he was penniless when winter came on, then society must look after him. He was ready to extract every penny he could from charity, provided that he was not expected to say thank you for it. He avoided religious charities, however, for he said it stuck in his throat to sing hymns for buns. He had various other points of honour; for instance, it was his boast that never in his life, even when starving, had he picked up a cigarette end. He considered himself in a class above the ordinary run of beggars, who, he said, were an abject lot, without even the decency to be ungrateful.
He spoke French passably, and had read some of Zola’s novels, all Shakespeare’s plays, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, and a number of essays. He could describe his adventures in words that one remembered. For instance, speaking of funerals, he said to me:
‘Have you-ever seen a corpse burned? I have, in India. They put the old chap on the fire, and the next moment I almost jumped out of my skin, because he’d started kicking. It was only his muscles contracting in the heat — still, it give me a turn. Well, he wriggled about for a bit like a kipper on hot coals, and then his belly blew up and went off with a bang you could have heard fifty yards away. It fair put me against cremation.’
Or, again, apropos of his accident:
‘The doctor says to me, “You fell on one foot, my man. And bloody lucky for you you didn’t fall on both feet,” he says. “Because if you had of fallen on both feet you’d have shut up like a bloody concertina, and your thigh bones’d be sticking out of your ears!”’
Clearly the phrase was not the doctor’s but Bozo’s own. He had a gift for phrases. He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think, and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.
He was an embittered atheist (the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him), and took a sort of pleasure in thinking that human affairs would never improve. Sometimes, he said, when sleeping on the Embankment, it had consoled him to look up at Mars or Jupiter and think that there were probably Embankment sleepers there. He had a curious theory about this. Life on earth, he said, is harsh because the planet is poor in the necessities of existence. Mars, with its cold climate and scanty water, must be far poorer, and life correspondingly harsher. Whereas on earth you are merely imprisoned for stealing sixpence, on Mars you are probably boiled alive. This thought cheered Bozo, I do not know why. He was a very exceptional man.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58