Wednesday, 26 November 2014

There's a tramp!

The following memories from my childhood came about when looking through the Art Renewal Centre Museum, and coming across Portrait of an Old Man by Adolph von Menzel 1884. Immediately my mind went back to those men of the road, vagrants, swagmen or whatever you wish to call them. 

Growing up in rural north Staffordshire, an area of farms, fields, tiny hamlets and not much else, we often had `tramps' walking the local roads and lanes. These were men* dressed in outfits seemingly collected from various places or perhaps given by kindly people whose homes they passed on their travels, I'm sure they'd be clean when handed over but the tramps lifestyle had the kiss of death on cleanliness and smartness, soon they became rubbish dump looking. Wherever their outfits came from they had a unity of sorts, a uniform that made them recognisable immediately as men of the road from quite a distance away. 

My eagle eyed mother on the merest sight of a tramp, would announced his coming. "Tramp! There's a tramp coming! Come on get inside, get in now!" And she would clack about like a demented chicken, snatching her washing in off the line, dragging me indoors where I'd be put to work closing all the windows and making sure doors were locked. Then it was upstairs to watch, through the safety of the windows, the walking bundle of clothes plod by minding his own business, hopefully unaware of the mother and child hiding from him.  I've no idea what prompted such panic in mother, maybe at some time one had frightened her, but her panic was quickly caught and caused my tender young heart to bang against my ribs in the way Keith Moon played his drums. 

 The first thing you'd notice about the tramps clothes were the overcoats, greatcoats I think might be the correct term. Usually with epulattes on the shoulders and double breasted, I'm sure that at one time they'd have been fabulous attire but now the rips and tears made interesting looking holes. I wonder if some small hole made by a bramble or the like became a bullet hole or the mark of a knife, when it's wearer sat round the camp fire story telling for entertainment. (I'm more than likely wide off the mark but it's an amusing thought). I know many of them wore a jacket under these greatcoats, I can only imagine how skinny they must have been when stripped because to wear not only a jacket but several jumpers and a shirt. It's probable they wore vests isn't it? Crikey! 

Then on his lower half possibly more than one pair of baggy trousers in a murky colour, I know that for sure because one very warm summers day, my aunt and I came upon one rather old tramp lying on the grass verge of the road he was fast asleep with his hat on his chest, his arms folded over his belly. He had one pair of trousers unfastened, held up by braces (the buttoned type) and this enabled us to see another pair underneath, before we turned and fled back the way we had come. (BTW, I judged his old age only from what bits of face we could see between his eyrie of a beard and the sheaf of hair on his head. To be honest so little could be seen, and what could was so deeply grimed with years of dirt, that his age and ethnicity were uncertain. This was true for most of the tramps round our area.)

To complete their outfits were the mufflers, hats, big and scruffy boots, sometimes wellingtons, and for a lot of the men it was string that kept it together. Some had belts round their coats and jackets but I remember the string being more the par. Walking rag bags my aunt called them, I'm not sure if it was said with sadness or disgust. 

For the most part they kept to themselves in their own little world, never even bothering to glance sideways, eyes fixed on where they were going. Occasionally there would be one who became a regular, occasionally you'd get to know his name, particularly if he did odd jobs for the farmers. Rarely did you stop and speak. Actually when I say 'you' I mean the adults of the villages, us kids kept our distance! This was the English countryside in the 1960s when kids were really kids, not miniature teenagers, and we knew what would happen if we used cheek to anyone and that included tramps. 

Who were these men? Where did they come from? Where were they going? To be honest I've no answer for you, and I would love to know. There were a few who were soldiers, come back from the war only to find they had no homes, no families left. (This is in the Midlands, so I presume some were from Birmingham, Coventry, and the other areas that saw the devastation of bombing). True indeed that some of them I watched from the upstairs windows, were obviously suffering from mental problems. One I remember well for his tendency to dive for cover at any loud bang, I'm ashamed to say my older cousins had fun with the dust bin lid as he walked past. 

Whoever they were, whatever their past was, wherever they were going they did no harm as far as I know. There might be suspicions of them pinching something from time to time, and one used to sneak into mother's outdoor toilet and use it, not bothering to flush which drove mother mad. I'm glad for the offender that she never caught him, put it that way!

* I say these were men simply because we never saw any female tramps. That's not to say there weren't any, I don't know if there were or not! In writing this blog I deal only with what I've experienced myself, it's life as I've seen it and lived it. 

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