Britain's Got Beggars Galore-But What Has Happened to All the Real Tramps?

Article excerpt

Byline: ANDREW MARTIN

Britain's got beggars has happened to all As 'blanket waifs' swamp our streets, Andrew Martin went in search of a legend - the genuine 'gentlemen of the road' My search for a proper, old-fashioned tramp of the sort you don't seem to see much these days was triggered by the sight of a bench outside the City Library in York. It was empty at 10pm, and that wasn't right.

I could walk up to it and read the inscription without any problem: 'This seat was provided with the generous assistance of Mrs E. B.

Cooper. . .' Twenty years ago, I would not have been able to do that because this bench was the bed of a tramp.

He had jet-black hair and a jet-black beard. His head was about 80 per cent hair and 20 per cent face.

(My dad, whose hair had receded slightly, used to say, with a mixture of admiration and bitterness, that the tramp's hair never fell out because he never washed it.) His face was brown: too like a polished antique to be healthy-looking, but the shade still owed more to the outdoor life than drink. He wore a sack-like coat with a belt of frayed string, and his trousers were rumpled and dun.

Above his big boots, he'd used more string to rig up a pair of garters.

The boots and garters were important because they put the focus on his feet.

(He walked everywhere, and he walked a lot. Eventually, he must have walked away from York - or, more likely, died of booze.) This man looked like someone trying to look like a tramp - as if paying homage to a tradition. He also had that leonine handsomeness associated with tramps, and he evoked in me a kind of awe, which is the typical English attitude towards tramps.

George Bernard Shaw admired the vagrant W. H. Davies's book of 60 years ago, Autobiography Of Supertramp, so much that he worried about turning into a 'middle-class tramp fancier'. Newspaper cuttings on tramps are usually positive, often suggesting that, if he'd wanted, the tramp could have fitted into society with ease and distinction: the tramp had been a chartered accountant, had a degree from Oxford. . .

Tramps are depicted as holy fools, with a lesson for us all. A case in point is Dennis Rough, who got into the papers ten years ago when the shed he was sleeping in turned out to belong to Tony Benn. Actually, no sparkling CV was attributed to

Rough; no one tried to deny he'd devoted most of his life to sitting in doorways and drinking Special Brew, but the vicar at his funeral said his life had been salutary: 'He always made us feel very uncomfortable because we all like to think we know where we are going. The truth is we are all going where Dennis has gone.' This deference stems from the fact that the word 'tramp' implies volition, life choice. The word is not much used today.

Instead, there are various politically correct replacements.

When I began leaving messages with appropriate agencies about my search for a tramp, they'd phone back and say 'We got your message about a wayfarer.

. .' or 'a traveller. . .' or, above all, 'the homeless...' The term 'homeless' calls to mind that disturbing modern sight: waifs on the street, wrapped in blankets and begging. These are not tramps.

They don't have the look, that countrified feel or the boots. The withdrawal of income support for 16- and 17-year-olds in the Eighties is seen as the root cause of homelessness among the young, but Simeon Brody, youth specialist with the National Homeless Alliance, also points to 'the changing nature of the family', by which he means the deterioration of the family. And here is an important point about tramps. In the past, vagrant was likely to be middle-aged or elderly because youngsters would be accommodated at home.

The sight of kids begging has made the homeless issue high profile. It has spawned a network of voluntary agencies, and prompted the Government to set up a Rough Sleepers Unit. …