There’s a strange synchronicity with second-hand books. Two days ago, I’d finished all the books I had on the go, so randomly picked out one I’ve owned for years and not read for ages: WH Davies’ 1908 The Autobiography of a Super Tramp. While I know he’s not using the word in the modern way, I love the idea he thought of himself as a “super tramp”, as opposed to just an adequate one.

Davies was a Welshman born in 1871. Regarded as a delinquent, with expulsions from school and trouble keeping jobs, he spent much of his early life living rough in America. While there, he lost a leg while riding the trains with a fellow tramp (in a foreshadowing of the loss of limbs, the other tramp’s name was Three-Fingered Jack) and for the rest of his life sported a wooden one.

Destitute, he returned to England, where he lived in large doss houses in south-east London (including Southwark’s infamous Salvation Army hostel, known as The Ark) and sold shoe laces, saving his money with one single purpose: to self-publish his poetry.

In 1905, he sent his book of poems, entitled The Soul’s Destroyer, to George Bernard Shaw. “I get a gift of minor poetry once a week or so,” Shaw grumbled, but “before I had read three lines I perceived the author was a real poet.” Shaw was puzzled by what sort of man Davies was.

There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments, indeed no publisher in the ordinary channel of the trade in minor poetry. The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed in his manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots. It was marked “price half a crown.” An accompanying letter asked me very civilly if I required a half-crown book of verses; and if so, would I please send the author the half-crown; if not, would I return the book. This was attractively simple and sensible.

Shaw bought eight copies, and when they were reviewed in a London newspaper, he discovered Davies was a tramp. Noting the review mentioned Davies had a manuscript of an autobiography, Shaw wrote back and offered to read it through. He was amazed by it.

All I have to say by way of recommendation of the book is that I have read it through from beginning to end, and would have read more of it had there been more to read…another effect of this book on me is to make me realise what a slave to convention I have been all my life. When I think of the way I worked tamely for my living during all of those years when Mr. Davies, a free knight of the highway, lived like a pet bird on titbits, I feel that I have been duped out of my natural liberty.

Having read the introduction to the autobiography two days ago, I’d started wondering what Davies’ poems were actually like. Today, browsing a small pile of old books in one of Finchley Central’s junk shops, I found a 1946 hardback of his collected work. That’s 48 hours between my wondering about them and subsequently having them in my hand. There’s a strange providence with second-hand books – somehow they start to find their way to you.

In all, Davies self-published fifty volumes of poetry, and this book collects all 636 of his poems.

He’s largely forgotten today – but his work’s not at all bad. Befitting his preoccupations as a tramp, Davies writes about outside spaces, his nights spent sleeping rough in the woods, his desire to have a house, about rogues who “come this day to borrow / A sum that’s promised but not paid tomorrow”, and portrays scenes of life from the lodging houses he frequented. One poem concerns a sailor in a doss-house shouting at his parrot for it’s foul language.

With his autobiography a success, Davies was immediately accepted by London’s literary and artistic circles (albeit more for his unusual life story than his work.) He was painted by Augustus John and in 1916 had a bronze made of his head by Jacob Epstein.

WH Davies by Augustus John (National Museum of Wales)

In 1911, he was awarded a civil list pension of £50, which later increased to £100, and then £150. It meant he could live comfortably for the rest of his life and concentrate on his literary work. The same year, he coined his most recognisable (although often misquoted and rarely attributed) couplet in the poem Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care

We have no time to stand and stare…

A comfortable-looking Davies in 1913

In 1916, having lived for short periods in houses across London, Davies settled into a flat at 12 Great Russell Street (directly opposite the YMCA) with his pet toad, Jim.

He stayed at the flat until 1921 when he moved to 13 Avery Row, off Brook Street, in the smarter neighbour of Mayfair.

Davies’s flat in Avery Row was one of the dark brick properties on the left

During his time in London, Davies occupied himself by writing a second volume of autobiography entitled Later Days and giving readings of his work; fourteen of his readings for the BBC reside in their archives.

Marrying in 1925, Davies and his wife left London for Gloucester. He died in 1940, the doctors telling him that his heart was showing alarming signs of weakness, which they attributed to his dragging the extra weight of his wooden leg about.

In his introduction to the collected poems, his friend Osbert Sitwell called Davies an

extraordinary and memorable being, who, for all his humility, bore about him something of the primitive splendour and directness of the Elizabethan age: in which, as his appearance testified, he would have been equally at home. No one who knew him will, or ever could, forget him, even had he never written so many lovely poems, fresh and exquisite as flowers to keep his memory alive; and no one who knew him will ever be able to recall him without a smile of pleasure and regret.

Sir John Squire summed up his poetry with a lovely turn of phrase:

Mr. Davies is astonished at everything the rest of us take for granted. What to the rest of us is the first primrose of spring is to him the first primrose in all the world. In other words, he is pure poet.

Open editions of Davies’ The Autobiography Of A Supertramp can be read in full here.

I first came across David Thomson’s In Camden Town  a couple of years ago as bite-sized entries in a London anthology book. Thomson’s tightly wrought street reportage stood out like a beacon amidst the other more florid and familiar entries, so I kept an eye out for the book whenever I popped into a second-hand book shop. After a fruitless year of searching, I turned to Abebooks, where I picked up a battered second-hand copy for a couple of quid.

Put simply, it’s an enthralling work about London by a largely forgotten, hugely talented writer.

Born in 1914, Thomson worked as a writer, researcher and BBC radio producer, writing three novels, a book about animal folklore, and a number of children’s books for Puffin, such as Danny Fox, Danny Fox Meets A Stranger and Danny Fox At The Palace. In 1955, he and his wife moved to Regents Park Terrace in Camden to bring their three sons up.

In 1980, at the age of 66, he was attempting to complete a vast, sprawling history of Camden Town. Struck with writer’s block at the sheer immensity of the project, he started to keep a diary.

He thought that forcing himself to write short entries each day would help break the deadlock, as well as “bypass for a time my dread of opening the manuscript at the page where I left off.”  About halfway through his diary, he attempted to restart the book, but found himself in tears after just six lines. Returning to his new manuscript later in the day, he found the page he had been working on had been torn out – only he couldn’t remember having done so, nor could he remember what he’d written.

The book he ended up publishing instead was the diary – a wide-ranging vivid often beautiful, often bad-tempered account of life in Camden Town, as he writes, drinks and struggles with work.

He spends days roaming through Camden, describing the horrors and the dirt that he passes – “Canal black, with plastic cups floating on it, potato-crisp bags, Kentucky chicken and, I think, a dead cat” – popping into the pubs along the way, and passing hours chatting to the tramps, drunks and chancers who he runs into on a regular basis.

Thomson frequently writes about a Scottish alcoholic named Davy and his on-off partner Mary. He’d known them both for twenty years,

but only been on speaking terms with him since Christmas Eve in 1975…Davy came up to me and said that the off-licence was shut and would I go into the pub and get some cider. He had some little coins in his hand to encourage me. They are not allowed in anywhere and only into one cafe that I know of. I got the cider and some Guinness for myself and we went to drink it on a bench near the Buck’s Head where in those days they liked to sit in the sun facing the end of Inverness Street market. No market that day. Beautiful sun, but weak. Mary and Davy were surprised that I felt cold. They spend their lives in such places.

Elsewhere, Thomson talks with passion on the conditions that navvies worked under on the railways into Euston (a topic that he would have covered in his never-completed history) – in the course of his research, he discovered a record of a woman who’s lost twenty-nine of her partners in six years, and only one of them to natural causes.

Thomson starts to despise the fact he’s getting old, tells how he once smelled what he thinks were “ghost horses” at some traffic lights at Henley’s Corner, talks about how the smell of bonfires rouse old memories, and decides that the Punk fashion (this being 1980) he sees outside The Music Machine venue is akin to Puritanism – “it is startling to see such a look of severity, especially on the girl’s faces in the evening outside a pleasure dome, but this I guess is fashion too.”

He attends a sparse funeral in East Finchley for a pauper (“I felt I was in a desolate housing estate among minature houses for the dead”) and relates how even as an elderly man, he still always sat near attractive women on buses.

If it’s a girl with long hair down her back…I clasp the hand rail on the back of her seat. That’s what it’s meant for I suppose, but I’ve never seen anyone else clasp it. And as she moves her head her hair touches my hands….I just haven’t changed since I was fifteen. I learn from autobiographies that people do change.

Published by Hutchinson, and later in paperback by Penguin, the book was reviewed favourably at the time by The Guardian and The TLS, so it seems quite surprising that David Thomson is almost totally obscure today. His memoir Woodbrook (concerning a period in the 1930s where he tutored two girls in a rural Irish country house and ended up staying for ten years) is better known, but Thomson’s work has largely fallen out of the public eye.

Seamus Heaney wrote an introduction for a reissue of Thomson’s collection of seal folktales The People Of The Sea in 2001, and much of what he says about that ‘luminous’ book could equally apply to In Camden Town .

He refers to “the sweetness and intimacy of David Thomson’s imagination,” saying the book follows “his own creative, truth-telling bent with characteristic unpredictability and sprightliness.” Oddly, it sounds all very high-falutin’ until you’ve read In Camden Town, and the spikiness, the strangeness and the vividness that Heaney talks of can be spotted immediately.

The fact Heany’s comment applies equally to a book about living in a run-down North London district, as it does to a book about ancient Celtic seal fables, is purely down to the sheer brilliance of Thomson’s writing.

It’s a shame that this book has been totally forgotten, and it’s a shame that David Thomson seems to have been totally forgotten too. It’s something neither of them deserve.

Back in 2009, there was a little lady nicknamed Soho Pam who walked around Soho most nights asking for change. If you gave her some, she’d often ask if you wanted to buy a picture of her for a bit extra. I did. She told me that someone had come up to her in the street, asked if he could paint her and she agreed. When it was done, she took a photo of the finished result, and ordered loads of reprints from the negative.

If you give her a couple of quid, you get a picture of the lady you just gave it to.

Everyone should do this – if someone does you a favour, give them a painting someone’s done of you. That way, over time, they’d end up with a visual record of all the people they’d ever been nice to, and when they’re old, they can warm their cockles looking over their gallery.

Update: It was reported in early January 2013 that Soho Pam, the lady who handed out these photos, had died. Over the years, she had become one of Soho’s most familiar street faces – anyone stepping outside for a smoke on a night out would almost be guaranteed to have Pam bobble over at some point to cadge some change. The photo below comes from a Twitter account in her name.


Here’s the Telegraph’s obituary of Pam from January 2013.