DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON
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.
On the way to Edbury I told Paddy that I had a friend from whom I could be sure of getting money, and suggested going straight into London rather than face another night in the spike. But Paddy had not been in Edbury spike recently, and, tramp-like, he would not waste a night’s free lodging. We arranged to go into London the next morning. I had only a halfpenny, but Paddy had two shillings, which would get us a bed each and a few cups of tea.
The Edbury spike did not differ much from the one at Romton. The worst feature was that all tobacco was confiscated at the gate, and we were warned that any man caught smoking would be turned out at once. Under the Vagrancy Act tramps can be prosecuted for smoking in the spike — in fact, they can be prosecuted for almost anything; but the authorities generally save the trouble of a prosecution by turning disobedient men out of doors. There was no work to do, and the cells were fairly comfortable. We slept two in a cell, ‘one up, one down’ — that is, one on a wooden shelf and one on the floor, with straw palliasses and plenty of blankets, dirty but not verminous. The food was the same as at Romton, except that we had tea instead of cocoa. One could get extra tea in the morning, as the Tramp Major was selling it at a halfpenny a mug, illicitly no doubt. We were each given a hunk of bread and cheese to take away for our midday meal.
When we got into London we had eight hours to kill before the lodging-houses opened. It is curious how one does not notice things. I had been in London innumerable times, and yet till that day I had never noticed one of the worst things about London — the fact that it costs money even to sit down. In Paris, if you had no money and could not find a public bench, you would sit on the pavement. Heaven knows what sitting on the pavement would lead to in London — prison, probably. By four we had stood five hours, and our feet seemed red-hot from the hardness of the stones. We were hungry, having eaten our ration as soon as we left the spike, and I was out of tobacco — it mattered less to Paddy, who picked up cigarette ends. We tried two churches and found them locked. Then we tried a public library, but there were no seats in it. As a last hope Paddy suggested trying a Rowton House; by the rules they would not let us in before seven, but we might slip in unnoticed. We walked up to the magnificent doorway (the Rowton Houses really are magnificent) and very casually, trying to look like regular lodgers, began to stroll in. Instantly a man lounging in the doorway, a sharp-faced fellow, evidently in some position of authority, barred the way.
‘You men sleep ’ere last night?’
‘Then f— off.’
We obeyed, and stood two more hours on the street corner. It was unpleasant, but it taught me not to use the expression ‘street corner loafer’, so I gained something from it.
At six we went to a Salvation Army shelter. We could not book beds till eight and it was not certain that there would be any vacant, but an official, who called us ‘Brother’, let us in on the condition that we paid for two cups of tea. The main hall of the shelter was a great white-washed barn of a place, oppressively clean and bare, with no fires. Two hundred decentish, rather subdued-looking people were sitting packed on long wooden benches. One or two officers in uniform prowled up and down. On the wall were pictures of General Booth, and notices prohibiting cooking, drinking, spitting, swearing, quarrelling, and gambling. As a specimen of these notices, here is one that I copied word for word:
Any man found gambling or playing cards will be expelled and will not be admitted under any circumstances.
A reward will be given for information leading to the discovery of such persons.
The officers in charge appeal to all lodgers to assist them in keeping this hostel free from the detestable evil of gambling.
‘Gambling or playing cards’ is a delightful phrase. To my eye these Salvation Army shelters, though clean, are far drearier than the worst of the common lodging-houses. There is such a hopelessness about some of the people there — decent, broken-down types who have pawned their collars but are still trying for office jobs. Coming to a Salvation Army shelter, where it is at least clean, is their last clutch at respectability. At the next table to me were two foreigners, dressed in rags but manifestly gentlemen. They were playing chess verbally, not even writing down the moves. One of them was blind, and I heard them say that they had been saving up for a long time to buy a board, price half a crown, but could never manage it. Here and there were clerks out of work, pallid and moody. Among a group of them a tall, thin, deadly pale young man was talking excitedly. He thumped his fist on the table and boasted in a strange, feverish style. When the officers were out of hearing he broke out into startling blasphemies:
‘I tell you what, boys, I’m going to get that job tomorrow. I’m not one of your bloody down-on-the-knee brigade; I can look after myself. Look at that — notice there! “The Lord will provide!” A bloody lot He’s ever provided me with. You don’t catch me trusting to the — Lord. You leave it to me, boys. I’m going to get that job,’ etc. etc.
I watched him, struck by the wild, agitated way in which he talked; he seemed hysterical, or perhaps a little drunk. An hour later I went into a small room, apart from the main hall, which was intended for reading. It had no books or papers in it, so few of the lodgers went there. As I opened the door I saw the young clerk in there all alone; he was on his knees, praying. Before I shut the door again I had time to see his face, and it looked agonized. Quite suddenly I realized, from the expression of his face, that he was starving.
The charge for beds was eightpence. Paddy and I had fivepence left, and we spent it at the ‘bar’, where food was cheap, though not so cheap as in some common lodging-houses. The tea appeared to be made with tea dust, which I fancy had been given to the Salvation Army in charity, though they sold it at threehalfpence a cup. It was foul stuff. At ten o’clock an officer marched round the hall blowing a whistle. Immediately everyone stood up.
‘What’s this for?’ I said to Paddy, astonished.
‘Dat means you has to go off to bed. An’ you has to look sharp about it, too.’
Obediently as sheep, the whole two hundred men trooped off to bed, under the command of the officers.
The dormitory was a great attic like a barrack room, with sixty or seventy beds in it. They were clean and tolerably comfortable, but very narrow and very close together, so that one breathed straight into one’s neighbour’s face. Two officers slept in the room, to see that there was no smoking and no talking after lights-out. Paddy and I had scarcely a wink of sleep, for there was a man near us who had some nervous trouble, shellshock perhaps, which made him cry out ‘Pip!’ at irregular intervals. It was a loud, startling noise, something like the toot of a small motor-horn. You never knew when it was coming, and it was a sure preventer of sleep. It appeared that Pip, as the others called him, slept regularly in the shelter, and he must have kept ten or twenty people awake every night. He was an example of the kind of thing that prevents one from ever getting enough sleep when men are herded as they are in these lodging-houses.
At seven another whistle blew, and the officers went round shaking those who did not get up at once. Since then I have slept in a number of Salvation Army shelters, and found that, though the different houses vary a little, this semi-military discipline is the same in all of them. They are certainly cheap, but they are too like workhouses for my taste. In some of them there is even a compulsory religious service once or twice a week, which the lodgers must attend or leave the house. The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body that they cannot even run a lodging-house without making it stink of charity.
At ten I went to B.’s office and asked him to lend me a pound. He gave me two pounds and told me to come again when necessary, so that Paddy and I were free of money troubles for a week at least. We loitered the day in Trafalgar Square, looking for a friend of Paddy’s who never turned up, and at night went to a lodging-house in a back alley near the Strand. The charge was elevenpence, but it was a dark, evil-smelling place, and a notorious haunt of the ‘nancy boys’. Downstairs, in the murky kitchen, three ambiguous-looking youths in smartish blue suits were sitting on a bench apart, ignored by the other lodgers. I suppose they were ‘nancy boys’. They looked the same type as the apache boys one sees in Paris, except that they wore no side-whiskers. In front of the fire a fully dressed man and a stark-naked man were bargaining. They were newspaper sellers. The dressed man was selling his clothes to the naked man. He said:
‘’Ere y’are, the best rig-out you ever ’ad. A tosheroon [half a crown] for the coat, two ’ogs for the trousers, one and a tanner for the boots, and a ’og for the cap and scarf. That’s seven bob.’
‘You got a ’ope! I’ll give yer one and a tanner for the coat, a ’og for the trousers, and two ’ogs for the rest. That’s four and a tanner.’
‘Take the ’ole lot for five and a tanner, chum.’
‘Right y’are, off with ’em. I got to get out to sell my late edition.’
The clothed man stripped, and in three minutes their positions were reversed; the naked man dressed, and the other kilted with a sheet of the Daily Mail.
The dormitory was dark and close, with fifteen beds in it. There was a horrible hot reek of urine, so beastly that at first one tried to breathe in small, shallow puffs, not filling one’s lungs to the bottom. As I lay down in bed a man loomed out of the darkness, leant over me and began babbling in an educated, half-drunken voice:
‘An old public schoolboy, what? [He had heard me say something to Paddy.] Don’t meet many of the old school here. I am an old Etonian. You know — twenty years hence this weather and all that.’ He began to quaver out the Eton boating-song, not untunefully:
‘Stop that — noise!’ shouted several lodgers.
‘Low types,’ said the old Etonian, ‘very low types. Funny sort of place for you and me, eh? Do you know what my friends say to me? They say, “M—, you are past redemption.” Quite true, I am past redemption. I’ve come down in the world; not like these —s here, who couldn’t come down if they tried. We chaps who have come down ought to hang together a bit. Youth will be still in our faces — you know. May I offer you a drink?’
He produced a bottle of cherry brandy, and at the same moment lost his balance and fell heavily across my legs. Paddy, who was undressing, pulled him upright.
‘Get back to yer bed, you silly ole c—!’
The old Etonian walked unsteadily to his bed and crawled under the sheets with all his clothes on, even his boots. Several times in the night I heard him murmuring, ‘M—, you are past redemption,’ as though the phrase appealed to him. In the morning he was lying asleep fully dressed, with the bottle clasped in his arms. He was a man of about fifty, with a refined, worn face, and, curiously enough, quite fashionably dressed. It was queer to see his good patent-leather shoes sticking out of that filthy bed. It occurred to me, too, that the cherry brandy must have cost the equivalent of a fortnight’s lodging, so he could not have been seriously hard up. Perhaps he frequented common lodging-houses in search of the ‘nancy boys’.
The beds were not more than two feet apart. About midnight I woke up to find that the man next to me was trying to steal the money from beneath my pillow. He was pretending to be asleep while he did it, sliding his hand under the pillow as gently as a rat. In the morning I saw that he was a hunchback, with long, apelike arms. I told Paddy about the attempted theft. He laughed and said:
‘Christ! You got to get used to dat. Dese lodgin’ houses is full o’ thieves. In some houses dere’s nothin’ safe but to sleep wid all yer clo’es on. I seen ’em steal a wooden leg off a cripple before now. Once I see a man — fourteen-stone man he was — come into a lodgin’-house wid four pound ten. He puts it under his mattress. “Now,” he says, “any — dat touches dat money does it over my body,” he says. But dey done him all de same. In de mornin’ he woke up on de floor. Four fellers had took his mattress by de corners an’ lifted him off as light as a feather. He never saw his four pound ten again.’
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 his 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.’
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 crab-like 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.
The charge at Bozo’s lodging-house was ninepence a night. It was a large, crowded place, with accommodation for five hundred men, and a well-known rendezvous of tramps, beggars, and petty criminals. All races, even black and white, mixed in it on terms of equality. There were Indians there, and when I spoke to one of them in bad Urdu he addressed me as ‘tum’ — a thing to make one shudder, if it had been in India. We had got below the range of colour prejudice. One had glimpses of curious lives. Old ‘Grandpa’, a tramp of seventy who made his living, or a great part of it, by collecting cigarette ends and selling the tobacco at threepence an ounce. ‘The Doctor’ — he was a real doctor, who had been struck off the register for some offence, and besides selling newspapers gave medical advice at a few pence a time. A little Chittagonian lascar, barefoot and starving, who had deserted his ship and wandered for days through London, so vague and helpless that he did not even know the name of the city he was in — he thought it was Liverpool, until I told him. A begging-letter writer, a friend of Bozo’s, who wrote pathetic appeals for aid to pay for his wife’s funeral, and, when a letter had taken effect, blew himself out with huge solitary gorges of bread and margarine. He was a nasty, hyena-like creature. I talked to him and found that, like most swindlers, he believed a great part of his own lies. The lodging-house was an Alsatia for types like these.
While I was with Bozo he taught me something about the technique of London begging. There is more in it than one might suppose. Beggars vary greatly, and there is a sharp social line between those who merely cadge and those who attempt to give some value for money. The amounts that one can earn by the different ‘gags’ also vary. The stories in the Sunday papers about beggars who die with two thousand pounds sewn into their trousers are, of course, lies; but the better-class beggars do have runs of luck, when they earn a living wage for weeks at a time. The most prosperous beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch — a theatre queue, for instance — a street acrobat will often earn five pounds a week. Street photographers can earn about the same, but they are dependent on fine weather. They have a cunning dodge to stimulate trade. When they see a likely victim approaching one of them runs behind the camera and pretends to take a photograph. Then as the victim reaches them, they exclaim:
‘There y’are, sir, took yer photo lovely. That’ll be a bob.’
‘But I never asked you to take it,’ protests the victim.
‘What, you didn’t want it took? Why, we thought you signalled with your ’and. Well, there’s a plate wasted! That’s cost us sixpence, that ’as.’
At this the victim usually takes pity and says he will have the photo after all. The photographers examine the plate and say that it is spoiled, and that they will take a fresh one free of charge. Of course, they have not really taken the first photo; and so, if the victim refuses, they waste nothing.
Organ-grinders, like acrobats, are considered artists rather than beggars. An organ-grinder named Shorty, a friend of Bozo’s, told me all about his trade. He and his mate ‘worked’ the coffee-shops and public-houses round Whitechapel and the Commercial Road. It is a mistake to think that organ-grinders earn their living in the street; nine-tenths of their money is taken in coffee-shops and pubs — only the cheap pubs, for they are not allowed into the good-class ones. Shorty’s procedure was to stop outside a pub and play one tune, after which his mate, who had a wooden leg and could excite compassion, went in and passed round the hat. It was a point of honour with Shorty always to play another tune after receiving the ‘drop’ — an encore, as it were; the idea being that he was a genuine entertainer and not merely paid to go away. He and his mate took two or three pounds a week between them, but, as they had to pay fifteen shillings a week for the hire of the organ, they only averaged a pound a week each. They were on the streets from eight in the morning till ten at night, and later on Saturdays.
Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not. Bozo introduced me to one who was a ‘real’ artist — that is, he had studied art in Paris and submitted pictures to the Salon in his day. His line was copies of Old Masters, which he did marvellously, considering that he was drawing on stone. He told me how he began as a screever:
‘My wife and kids were starving. I was walking home late at night, with a lot of drawings I’d been taking round the dealers, and wondering how the devil to raise a bob or two. Then, in the Strand, I saw a fellow kneeling on the pavement drawing, and people giving him pennies. As I came past he got up and went into a pub. “Damn it,” I thought, “if he can make money at that, so can I.” So on the impulse I knelt down and began drawing with his chalks. Heaven knows how I came to do it; I must have been lightheaded with hunger. The curious thing was that I’d never used pastels before; I had to leam the technique as I went along. Well, people began to stop and say that my drawing wasn’t bad, arid they gave me ninepence between them. At this moment the other fellow came out of the pub. “What in — are you doing on my pitch?” he said. I explained that I was hungry and had to earn something. “Oh,” said he, “come and have a pint with me.” So I had a pint, and since that day I’ve been a screever. I make a pound a week. You can’t keep six kids on a pound a week, but luckily my wife earns a bit taking in sewing.
‘The worst thing in this life is the cold, and the next worst is the interference you have to put up with. At first, not knowing any better, I used sometimes to copy a nude on the pavement. The first I did was outside St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church. A fellow in black — I suppose he was a churchwarden or something — came out in a tearing rage. “Do you think we can have that obscenity outside God’s holy house?” he cried. So I had to wash it out. It was a copy of Botticelli’s Venus. Another time I copied the same picture on the Embankment. A policeman passing looked at it, and then, without a word, walked on to it and rubbed it out with his great flat feet.’
Bozo told the same tale of police interference. At the time when I was with him there had been a case of ‘immoral conduct’ in Hyde Park, in which the police had behaved rather badly. Bozo produced a cartoon of Hyde Park with policemen concealed in the trees, and the legend, ‘Puzzle, find the policemen.’ I pointed out to him how much more telling it would be to put, ‘Puzzle, find the immoral conduct,’ but Bozo would not hear of it. He said that any policeman who saw it would move him on, and he would lose his pitch for good.
Below screevers come the people who sing hymns, or sell matches, or bootlaces, or envelopes containing a few grains of lavender — called, euphemistically, perfume. All these people are frankly beggars, exploiting an appearance of misery, and none of them takes on an average more than half a crown a day. The reason why they have to pretend to sell matches and so forth instead of begging outright is that this is demanded by the absurd English laws about begging. As the law now stands, if you approach a stranger and ask him for twopence, he can call a policeman and get you seven days for begging. But if you make the air hideous by droning ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee,’ or scrawl some chalk daubs on the pavement, or stand about with a tray of matches — in short, if you make a nuisance of yourself — you are held to be following a legitimate trade and not begging. Match-selling and street-singing are simply legalized crimes. Not profitable crimes, however; there is not a singer or match-seller in London who can be sure of £50 a year — a poor return for standing eighty-four hours a week on the kerb, with the cars grazing your backside.
It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary ‘working’ men. They are a race apart — outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men ‘work’, beggars do not ‘work’; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not ‘earn’ his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic ‘earns’ his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable.
Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no essential difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course — but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout — in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.
Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? — for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modem people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.
I want to put in some notes, as short as possible, on London slang and swearing. These (omitting the ones that everyone knows) are some of the cant words now used in London:
A gagger — beggar or street performer of any kind. A moocher — one who begs outright, without pretence of doing a trade. A nobber — one who collects pennies for a beggar. A chanter — a street singer. A clodhopper — a street dancer. A mugfaker — a street photographer. A glimmer — one who watches vacant motor-cars. A gee (or jee — it is pronounced jee) — the accomplice of a cheapjack, who stimulates trade by pretending to buy something. A split — a detective. A flattie — a policeman. A didecai — a gypsy. A toby — a tramp.
A drop — money given to a beggar. Fuhkum — lavender or other perfume sold in envelopes. A boozer — a public-house. A slang — a hawker’s licence. A kip — a place to sleep in, or a night’s lodging. Smoke — London. A judy — a woman. The spike — the casual ward. The lump — the casual ward. A tosheroon — a half-crown. A deaner — a shilling. A hog — a shilling. A sprowsie — a sixpence. Clods — coppers. A drum — a billy can. Shackles — soup. A chat — a louse. Hard-up — tobacco made from cigarette ends. A stick or cane — a burglar’s jemmy. A peter — a safe. A bly — a burglar’s oxy-acetylene blow-lamp.
To bawl — to suck or swallow. To knock off — to steal. To skipper — to sleep in the open.
About half of these words are in the larger dictionaries. It is interesting to guess at the derivation of some of them, though one or two — for instance, ‘funkum’ and ‘tosheroon’ — are beyond guessing. ‘Deaner’ presumably comes from. ‘denier’. ‘Glimmer’ (with the verb ‘to glim’) may have something to do with the old word ‘glim’, meaning a light, or another old word ‘glim’, meaning a glimpse; but it is an instance of the formation of new words, for in its present sense it can hardly be older than motor-cars. ‘Gee’ is a curious word; conceivably it has arisen out of ‘gee’, meaning horse, in the sense of stalking horse. The derivation of ‘screever’ is mysterious. It must come ultimately from scribo, but there has been no similar word in English for the past hundred and fifty years; nor can it have come directly from the French, for pavement artists are unknown in France. ‘Judy’ and ‘bawl’ are East End words, not found west of Tower Bridge. ‘Smoke’ is a word used only by tramps. ‘Kip’ is Danish. Till quite recently the word ‘doss’ was used in this sense, but it is now quite obsolete.
London slang and dialect seem to change very rapidly. The old London accent described by Dickens and Surtees, with v for w and w for v and so forth, has now vanished utterly. The Cockney accent as we know it seems to have come up in the ‘forties (it is first mentioned in an American book, Herman Melville’s White Jacket), and Cockney is already changing; there are few people now who say ‘fice’ for ‘face’, ‘nawce’ for ‘nice’ and so forth as consistently as they did twenty years ago. The slang changes together with the accent. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, for instance, the ‘rhyming slang’ was all the rage in London. In the ‘rhyming slang’ everything was named by something rhyming with it — a ‘hit or miss’ for a kiss, ‘plates of meat’ for feet, etc. It was so common that it was even reproduced in novels; now it is almost extinct. Perhaps all the words I have mentioned above will have vanished in another twenty years.
The swear words also change — or, at any rate, they are subject to fashions. For example, twenty years ago the London working classes habitually used the word ‘bloody’. Now they have abandoned it utterly, though novelists still represent them as using it. No born Londoner (it is different with people of Scotch or Irish origin) now says ‘bloody’, unless he is a man of some education. The word has, in fact, moved up in the social scale and ceased to be a swear word for the purposes of the working classes. The current London adjective, now tacked on to every noun, is ‘fucking’. No doubt in time ‘fucking’, like ‘bloody’, will find its way into the drawing-room and be replaced by some other word.
The whole business of swearing, especially English swearing, is mysterious. Of its very nature swearing is as irrational as magic — indeed, it is a species of magic. But there is also a paradox about it, namely this: Our intention in swearing is to shock and wound, which we do by mentioning something that should be kept secret — usually something to do with the sexual functions. But the strange thing is that when a word is well established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning; that is, it loses the thing that made it into a swear word. A word becomes an oath because it means a certain thing, and, because it has become an oath, it ceases to mean that thing. For example ‘fuck’. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with ‘bugger’, which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French — for example ‘foutre’, which is now a quite meaningless expletive. The word ‘bougre’, also, is still used occasionally in Paris, but the people who use it, or most of them, have no idea of what it once meant. The rule seems to be that words accepted as swear words have some magical character, which sets them apart and makes them useless for ordinary conversation.
Words used as insults seem to be governed by the same paradox as swear words. A word becomes an insult, one would suppose, because it means something bad; but in practice its insult-value has little to do with its actual meaning. For example, the most bitter insult one can offer to a Londoner is ‘bastard’ — which, taken for what it means, is hardly an insult at all. And the worst insult to a woman, either in London or Paris, is ‘cow’; a name which might even be a compliment, for cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them. In this connection it is interesting to see how a swear word can change character by crossing a frontier. In England you can print ‘Je m’en fous’ without protest from anybody. In France you have to print it ‘Je m’en f ...’. Or, as another example, take the word ‘barnshoot’ — a corruption of the Hindustani word bahinchut. A vile and unforgivable insult in India, this word is a piece of gentle badinage in England. I have even seen it in a school text-book; it was in one of Aristophanes’ plays, and the annotator suggested it as a rendering of some gibberish spoken by a Persian ambassador. Presumably the annotator knew what bahinchut meant. But, because it was a foreign word, it had lost its magical swear-word quality and could be printed.
One other thing is noticeable about swearing in London, and that is that the men do not usually swear in front of the women. In Paris it is quite different. A Parisian workman may prefer to suppress an oath in front of a woman, but he is not at all scrupulous about it, and the women themselves swear freely. The Londoners are more polite, or more squeamish, in this matter.
These are a few notes that I have set down more or less at random. It is a pity that someone capable of dealing with the subject does not keep a year-book of London slang and swearing, registering the changes accurately. It might throw useful light upon the formation, development, and obsolescence of words.
The two pounds that B. had given me lasted about ten days. That it lasted so long was due to Paddy, who had learned parsimony on the road and considered even one sound meal a day a wild extravagance. Food, to him, had come to mean simply bread and margarine — the eternal tea-and-two-slices, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two. He taught me how to live, food, bed, tobacco, and all, at the rate of half a crown a day. And he managed to earn a few extra shillings by ‘glimming’ in the evenings. It was a precarious job, because illegal, but it brought in a little and eked out our money.
One morning we tried for a job as sandwich men. We went at five to an alley-way behind some offices, but there was already a queue of thirty or forty men waiting, and after two hours we were told that there was no work for us. We had not missed much, for sandwich men have an unenviable job. They are paid about three shillings a day for ten hours’ work — it is hard work, especially in windy weather, and there is no skulking, for an inspector comes round frequently to see that the men are on their beat. To add to their troubles, they are only engaged by the day, or sometimes for three days, never weekly, so that they have to wait hours for their job every morning. The number of unemployed men who are ready to do the work makes them powerless to fight for better treatment. The job all sandwich men covet is distributing handbills, which is paid for at the same rate. When you see a man distributing handbills you can do him a good turn by taking one, for he goes off duty when he has distributed all his bills.
Meanwhile we went on with the lodging-house life — a squalid, eventless life of crushing boredom. For days together there was nothing to do but sit in the underground kitchen, reading yesterday’s newspaper, or, when one could get hold of it, a back number of the Union Jack. It rained a great deal at this time, and everyone who came in Steamed, so that the kitchen stank horribly. One’s only excitement was the periodical tea-and-two-slices. I do not know how many men are living this life in London — it must be thousands at the least. As to Paddy, it was actually the best life he had known for two years past. His interludes from tramping, the times when he had somehow laid hands on a few shillings, had all been like this; the tramping itself had been slightly worse. Listening to his whimpering voice — he was always whimpering when he was not eating — one realized what torture unemployment must be to him. People are wrong when they think that an unemployed man only worries about losing his wages; on the contrary, an illiterate man, with the work habit in his bones, needs work even more than he needs money. An educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty. But a man like Paddy, with no means of filling up time, is as miserable out of work as a dog on the chain. That is why it is such nonsense to pretend that those who have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind.
It was a dull rime, and little of it stays in my mind, except for talks with Bozo. Once the lodging-house was invaded by a slumming-party. Paddy and I had been out, and, coming back in the afternoon, we heard sounds of music downstairs. We went down to find three gentle-people, sleekly dressed, holding a religious service in our kitchen. They were a grave and reverend seignior in a frock coat, a lady sitting at a portable harmonium, and a chinless youth toying with a crucifix. It appeared that they had marched in and started to hold the service, without any kind of invitation whatever.
It was a pleasure to see how the lodgers met this intrusion. They did not offer the smallest rudeness to the slummers; they just ignored them. By common consent everyone in the kitchen — a hundred men, perhaps — behaved as though the slummers had not existed. There they stood patiently singing and exhorting, and no more notice was taken of them than if they had been earwigs. The gentleman in the frock coat preached a sermon, but not a word of it was audible; it was drowned in the usual din of songs, oaths, and the clattering of pans. Men sat at their meals and card games three feet away from the harmonium, peaceably ignoring it. Presently the slummers gave it up and cleared out, not insulted in any way, but merely disregarded. No doubt they consoled themselves by thinking how brave they had been, ‘freely venturing into the lowest dens,’ etc. etc.
Bozo said that these people came to the lodging-house several times a month. They had influence with the police, and the ‘deputy’ could not exclude them. It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.
After nine days B.’s two pounds was reduced to one and ninepence. Paddy and I set aside eighteenpence for our beds, and spent threepence on the usual tea-and-two-slices, which we shared — an appetizer rather than a meal. By the afternoon we were damnably hungry and Paddy remembered a church near King’s Cross Station where a free tea was given once a week to tramps. This was the day, and we decided to go there. Bozo, though it was rainy weather and he was almost penniless, would not come, saying that churches were not his style.
Outside the church quite a hundred men were waiting, dirty types who had gathered from far and wide at the news of a free tea, like kites round a dead buffalo. Presently the doors opened and a clergyman and some girls shepherded us into a gallery at the top of the church. It was an evangelical church, gaunt and wilfully ugly, with texts about blood and fire blazoned on the walls, and a hymn-book containing twelve hundred and fifty-one hymns; reading some of the hymns, I concluded that the book would do as it stood for an anthology of bad verse. There was to be a service after the tea, and the regular congregation were sitting in the well of the church below. It was a week-day, and there were only a few dozen of them, mostly stringy old women who reminded one of boiling-fowls. We ranged ourselves in the gallery pews and were given our tea; it was a one-pound jam-jar of tea each, with six slices of bread and margarine. As soon as tea was over, a dozen tramps who had stationed themselves near the door bolted to avoid the service; the rest stayed, less from gratitude than lacking the cheek to go.
The organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All round the gallery men lolled in their pews, laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation; I had to restrain the man next to me, more or less by force, from lighting a cigarette. The tramps treated the service as a purely comic spectacle. It was, indeed, a sufficiently ludicrous service — the kind where there are sudden yells of ‘Hallelujah!’ and endless extempore prayers — but their behaviour passed all bounds. There was one old fellow in the congregation — Brother Bootle or some such name — who was often called on to lead us in prayer, and whenever he stood up the tramps would begin stamping as though in a theatre; they said that on a previous occasion he had kept up an extempore prayer for twenty-five minutes, until the minister had interrupted him. Once when Brother Bootle stood up a tramp called out, ‘Two to one ’e don’t beat seven minutes!’ so loud that the whole church must hear. It was not long before we were making far more noise than the minister. Sometimes somebody below would send up an indignant ‘Hush!’ but it made no impression. We had set ourselves to guy the service, and there was no stopping us.
It was a queer, rather disgusting scene. Below were the handful of simple, well-meaning people, trying hard to worship; and above were the hundred men whom they had fed, deliberately making worship impossible. A ring of dirty, hairy faces grinned down from the gallery, openly jeering. What could a few women and old men do against a hundred hostile tramps? They were afraid of us, and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us.
The minister was a brave man. He thundered steadily through a long sermon on Joshua, and managed almost to ignore the sniggers and chattering from above. But in the end, perhaps goaded beyond endurance, he announced loudly:
‘I shall address the last five minutes of my sermon to the unsaved sinners!’
Having said which, he turned his face to the gallery and kept it so for five minutes, lest there should be any doubt about who were saved and who unsaved. But much we cared! Even while the minister was threatening hell fire, we were rolling cigarettes, and at the last amen we clattered down the stairs with a yell, many agreeing to come back for another free tea next week.
The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps — from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor — it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.
In the evening, after the free tea, Paddy unexpectedly earned another eighteenpence at ‘glimming’. It was exactly enough for another night’s lodging, and we put it aside and went hungry till nine the next evening. Bozo, who might have given us some food, was away all day. The pavements were wet, and he had gone to the Elephant and Castle, where he knew of a pitch under shelter. Luckily I still had some tobacco, so that the day might have been worse.
At half past eight Paddy took me to the Embankment, where a clergyman was known to distribute meal tickets once a week. Under Charing Cross Bridge fifty men were waiting, mirrored in the shivering puddles. Some of them were truly appalling specimens — they were Embankment sleepers, and the Embankment dredges up worse types than the spike. One of them, I remember, was dressed in an overcoat without buttons, laced up with rope, a pair of ragged trousers, and boots exposing his toes — not a rag else. He was bearded like a fakir, and he had managed to streak his chest and shoulders with some horrible black filth resembling train oil. What one could see of his face under the dirt and hair was bleached white as paper by some malignant disease. I heard him speak, and he had a goodish accent, as of a clerk or shopwalker.
Presently the clergyman appeared and the men ranged themselves in a queue in the order in which they had arrived. The clergyman was a nice, chubby, youngish man, and, curiously enough, very like Charlie, my friend in Paris. He was shy and embarrassed, and did not speak except for a brief good evening; he simply hurried down the line of men, thrusting a ticket upon each, and not waiting to be thanked. The consequence was that, for once, there was genuine gratitude, and everyone said that the clergyman was a — good feller. Someone (in his hearing, I believe) called out: ‘Well, he’ll never be a — bishop!’ — this, of course, intended as a warm compliment.
The tickets were worth sixpence each, and were directed to an eating-house not far away. When we got there we found that the proprietor, knowing that the tramps could not go elsewhere, was cheating by only giving four pennyworth of food for each ticket. Paddy and I pooled our tickets, and received food which we could have got for sevenpence or eightpence at most coffee-shops. The clergyman had distributed well over a pound in tickets, so that the proprietor was evidently swindling the tramps to the tune of seven shillings or more a week. This kind of victimization is a regular part of a tramp’s life, and it will go on as long as people continue to give meal tickets instead of money.
Paddy and I went back to the lodging-house and, still hungry, loafed in the kitchen, making the warmth of the fire a substitute for food. At half-past ten Bozo arrived, tired out and haggard, for his mangled leg made walking an agony. He had not earned a penny at screeving, all the pitches under shelter being taken, and for several hours he had begged outright, with one eye on the policemen. He had amassed eightpence — a penny short of his kip. It was long past the hour for paying, and he had only managed to slip indoors when the deputy was not looking; at any moment he might be caught and turned out, to sleep on the Embankment. Bozo took the things out of his pockets and looked them over, debating what to sell. He decided on his razor, took it round the kitchen, and in a few minutes he had sold it for threepence — enough to pay his kip, buy a basin of tea, and leave a half-penny over.
Bozo got his basin of tea and sat down by the fire to dry his clothes. As he drank the tea I saw that he was laughing to himself, as though at some good joke. Surprised, I asked him what he had to laugh at.
‘It’s bloody funny!’ he said. ‘It’s funny enough for Punch. What do you think I been and done?’
‘Sold my razor without having a shave first: Of all the — fools!’
He had not eaten since the morning, had walked several miles with a twisted leg, his clothes were drenched, and he had a halfpenny between himself and starvation. With all this, he could laugh over the loss of his razor. One could not help admiring him.