Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Stand and Stare

Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Stand and Stare

Article excerpt

What is this life? TIME TO STAND AND STARE by Barbara Hooper Peter Owen, £15.95, pp. 202, ISBN 0720612055 £13.95 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

W. H. Davies was a phenomenon of whom, it seems, few nowadays have heard. His lines, 'What is this life if, full of care,/ We have no time to stand and stare?' were quoted with approval in the local pub the other day, but nobody knew who wrote them. In 1996 that poem, 'Leisure', was voted 14th most popular in the English language, ahead of Marvell and Blake.

Davies was indeed a phenomenon because, for at least ten years of his life, he was a non-writing, non-reading tramp. Not a 'hobo', who looks around for casual labour, not a slumming would-be author in search of copy, but a genuine, non-diary-keeping, begging-his-way tramp, in England, the United States and Canada, keeping company with the likes of Three-Fingered Jack and Detroit Fatty, sleeping in doss-houses when he could and in the open air (or in jail) when he couldn't. He certainly gave himself plenty of non-working leisure, but whether he had much time to stare is doubtful. He seemed to be constantly, compulsively on the move. It doesn't take much imagination to understand how short of glamour such a life is. It must have been horrible, and no one has been able to figure out why, alert and ambitious as he was, he lived it for so long.

He was born in Newport in 1871; his father died young, his mother married again and he was brought up by his ex-seafaring grandfather. While he was still at school he was birched for shoplifting, and seems not to have minded. Then came five years' apprenticeship with a picture-frame carver, and he minded that. It was too long. In 1893 he worked his passage on a cattle boat to the USA and 'took to the road'.

Ten years later he returned, to London, and in a Southwark doss-house (called 'The Farmhouse' - a name which charmed his first readers) sat down to write poems, remarkably few of which concerned his tramping experience: 'Lines to a Sparrow', 'Spring', 'The Cuckoo', were the sort of thing. On the way to the Yukon gold-rush, he lost a leg jumping train without a ticket; in the poems he mentions neither the Yukon nor his missing leg. He paid (from a tiny legacy) for 40 poems to be printed in a gloomy book called The Soul's Destroyer and sent them out to people taken from Who's Who. …

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