James Leo (Jim) Phelan (1895-1966) was an Irish vagabond born in Inchicore close to the railway works. Some of his early books on prison life, the Irish struggle, tramping and the “says” of the didicoi, were critically acclaimed. His love of radio broadcasting combined his talents for writing and “fadging” (giving a credible, appealing “line of guff” to his “marks”). He had two long-term partners subsequent to the death of his first wife at the beginning of his thirteen-year prison sentence as a scapegoat for a murder. The last of these was fellow hitchhiker Kathleen Newton, who accompanied him on his travels through Britain and continental Europe. Although Jim Phelan continued writing up until his death, by the sixties his star had faded and now, although his name may be vaguely recalled, few appreciate just how well he wrote.
Jim Phelan came onto my radar a few years ago when I was writing a book about Liverpool. Reference sources such as Merseypride by John Belchem and Ken Worpole’s Dockers and Detectives described Phelan as a writer who used expressionist techniques to portray the sadness of working class life. They also referred to him as a Liverpool-Irish seaman who in common with George Garrett and James Hanley had written about alienation, dislocation and rootlessness in port cities.
As a young man Phelan had fled from his job as an apprentice blacksmith and ended up drunk on board the steam tanker SS Narranganset in Cork harbour. After signing up as a stoker he jumped ship two weeks later in the hurricane port of Galveston. From there he tramped to Houston and freightboarded on to the Big Easy. After further research I appreciated that his first impressions of New Orleans might just as easily have applied to himself:
If the cities had personality, as Kipling wrote, and if New York was an insurance broker, Paris a restaurateur, London a merchant and Dublin a bookie, New Orleans would have been a drifter, a dreaming lie-about, a casual glancer at muddy rivers.
As he gazed out on the Mississippi from the scented waterfront Phelan’s day-dreaming was interrupted by a young ship’s fireman from Seacombe called George Garrett. Garrett had recently sailed from Liverpool to La Boca and then spent a year wandering around Argentina before returning to the sea. He bought Phelan a few drinks and later helped him obtain a seaman’s union card and a berth back to Glasgow. Both men already harboured ambitions to become writers and shared the same socialist principles. If it had not been for Garrett, Phelan might never have returned home to Ireland.
In 1918 Garrett sailed from Liverpool to New York and based himself there for the next two years where he got involved in radical politics and the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). Three years after he had returned to England he went back to New York, this time to try his hand at writing. After the General Strike of 1926 he settled back in Liverpool, where he worked to improve the lot of the poor and underprivileged. By the time my book had been published, Writing on the Wall had unveiled the George Garrett Archive Project in recognition of his contribution as a writer, playwright and founding member of the Unity Theatre and his role in Liverpool’s ocean-going political and syndicalist links to the United States and South America.
Phelan on the other hand remained a countercurrent in the mainstream, unrecognised by the Irish and forgotten in Great Britain and America. I started my investigations into his life by reading The Name’s Phelan (1948) the first volume of his autobiography, covering the time up to his imprisonment in Strangeways. I then discovered on the web Cynical Reflections ‑ Thoughts from a Tub, Ian Cutler’s “book on a blog” about tramp philosophy that includes a comprehensive description of Phelan’s wandering.
In the summer of 1923 Jim Phelan was sentenced to death at Manchester assizes for his part in a bungled IRA operation. He had acted as the armed lookout in a robbery in Bootle where a post office clerk called Thomas Lovelady had been shot dead. The suspected assassin, John McAteer, escaped justice and was located many years later in Odessa. Barry McLoughlin describes McAteer’s life in Russia and tragic death under Stalin in Left to the Wolves: Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror.
As he waited to be hanged, the twenty-eight-year-old “hired Irish American gunman”, as he was branded by the press, read books about death, discussed trivialities with the warders and wrote letters to HG Wells and Upton Sinclair. In periods of brief waking Phelan walked a narrow road that transected an Irish bog. Behind him was a sea of fog and in front of him a swirling mist. In company he tried to conceal his deep sorrow with gallows humour and bravado. One night alone in his cell he relived his first premeditated attempt to leave home. At the age of four he had toddled down the long white road from Inchicore heading for Tipperary. On the way he had met his first tramp and the two had walked hand in hand before he had wandered off to play on a grassy bank. He recalled and hummed the favourite ballad about the woodsmen of Chapelizod felling a tree, “Sky low, sky low far away my many parties” he had sung as he played. Later, when he had been questioned by a policeman, he replied without hesitation that he came from Tipperary and had become separated from his father. His saintly looks, lilting singsong voice and precocious vocabulary made him a natural at telling harmless and rewarding untruths. The officer saw him on to a train that would take him the eighty miles “back home”, giving him a bottle of milk and some cakes for the journey. Eventually, after he had been paraded around Tipperary, he was identified by one of his father’s family and dispatched back home to Inchicore, where a severe beating awaited him.
Phelan’s childhood was a happy one but at the first sign of unpleasantness or trouble his instinct had always been to make a break for it. He had reached Glasgow’s Gallowgate at fourteen, learning to speak Scots, and had fallen in love with the crooked beckoning town of Toulon at eighteen. Padding the grit became his way of trying to preserve the quiet certainty of childhood. A deep-seated fear of being tied down had compelled him to reject the “genius status” bestowed on him by his mother and Brother Redmond, his teacher, and insist on leaving school at thirteen to become a telegram boy in Dublin.
Phelan had learned how to trance-drift on the road. In one complex “set” he was on a strand below a cliff with seven men and seven women picking flat shellfish called collya. When the sun went down and his naked companions snuggled together for warmth Phelan flew up into the air. Gliding with seagulls, he watched a cloudbank brooding on the water. Beneath the waves he could make out strange reflections of people running to and fro, and on the far horizon two rocky islands rose out of the sea. Wakened by the sound of the waves, he flew inland and landed on a grassy bank where he tried unsuccessfully to recall the lyrics of a ballad called Skyfall he had loved to sing as a child. His name, Ua Faolain, was derived from the Gaelic word for seagull; the fallen tree mentioned in the song was a totem of his childhood self. That was as far as he ever got in unravelling the meaning of his short life. There was nothing of value for him to hold on to or pass on. His death row notice read:
Name: Phelan, James Leo. Age: 28, Height: 5-11. Weight: 186lb. Occupation: Nil. Next of Kin: Nil. Religion: Nil. Property: Nil. Previous convictions: Nil. Marks and scars: Nil.
With the exception of his body weight he considered these official statistics to be superfluous.
In the early hours of August 14th, the prison governor came to his cell and read out a long statement from the home secretary informing him that his sentence had been commuted to one of penal servitude; in Phelan’s view this was a fate worse than death. His next thirteen and a bit years would be spent as a tramp at anchor in Winson Green, Maidstone, Dartmoor and Parkhurst jails. Although escape was never far from his mind he quickly appreciated that his incarceration had provided him with the perfect opportunity to write the definitive survival manual for British prisons:
I was an explorer in a field of science, which was almost untouched … I had an advantage over the orthodox penologists and commentators on jail-psychology. They dealt with reports, statistics, departmental accounts … I had the men themselves, their chuckles and groans, their blood and sweat and excrement, the animal growl of the jail voices, the sniffing one another from afar, the lip-licking, saliva-drooling jungle technique of homosexual love-making, the fantasy hiss, the small sadism, the neurosis.
It was forbidden at Maidstone to keep a diary or write about prison life so he was obliged to disguise the content of his field studies with Pitman’s shorthand, Gaelic and rhyming slang. His reams of notes written in pencil were squirrelled away in gaps in the floor and behind loose bricks. After his transfer to Dartmoor in 1926 he managed to persuade the governor to allow him to take a course in creative writing, and correspondence with Margaret Cunningham, his adult education tutor at Parkhurst, eventually yielded more than thirty stories.
Every prison chaplain or doctor who came into contact with Phelan agreed that he was a man of high intelligence but also that he was prickly and bore more grudges than a bench of lonely high court judges. Wilfred Macartney, a communist and spy who spent time in Parkhurst with him, provided one of the few available independent descriptions of Phelan’s character in his book Walls Without Mouths:
Alas he talks too well, and cannot suffer fools gladly, officials or others, and so his lagging has not been as smooth as a more stupid and less able man could have made of it.
Phelan and Macartney became close allies in their shared battle to survive the inanities of life inside. Phelan was not really interested in getting up on the roof in a fight for better prison conditions, only to protect himself from the atrophy of confinement. When Phelan was finally granted parole after more than thirteen years of incarceration Macartney was at the prison gates to meet him. In Macartney’s opinion, Phelan was one of those proletarians frequently active in the Wobblies who were able to put their hand to almost anything and do it well. He also gave him credit for forming the Autolycan chess club in Parkhurst.
Macartney then left for Spain to join the International Brigade, while Phelan found temporary lodgings in London bedsits and boarding houses. Ever since his first walk through the capital he had felt at home in the giant “tramp hostelry” of Soho. His special senses had been so heightened that following his release the smell of women passers-by on the Charing Cross Road was almost too much for him to bear. It was similar to coming out of a heroin cocoon. Some days he typed without interruption for fourteen hours, trying to organise his prison word-hoard into books and short stories. He began to frequent his old haunts in the West End and wrote scrounging letters to sympathisers like Compton Mackenzie, Reginald Reynolds and LAG. Strong.
As soon as he had delivered his first manuscript to his agent he headed away from London, hitching to Italy. By the time he got back the American edition of his social commentary about British prisons called Museum (1937) (Lifer in the UK) had been released. Some weeks later he received the following letter:
DEAR JIM PHELAN, I have just finished your novel Museum. If ever anyone else attempts to write a novel on the same subject, I shall re-read yours. Cordially, H. G. Wells
Phelan had met Wells on the Charing Cross Road several years before his jail sentence on his first visit to London and the two men had continued to correspond during Phelan’s imprisonment. Wells had contextualised modern vagrancy by referring to the delicate balance he believed had existed between city folk living on the edge of the sea and rural bands of shepherds in ancient Greece and Phoenicia, a notion which appealed greatly to Phelan and which he developed in his books.
Four partly autobiographical novels, Lifer and Meet the Criminal Class about prisons, Green Volcano, a dark thriller about Irish double agents bookended by the Easter Rising and the Civil War, and Ten a Penny People, an unsentimental montage of working class life in Manchester, were all published the following year. The dedication in the front of Ten a Penny People read “To William McCartney who knew”. Forrest Reid, the literary critic for The Spectator, wrote, “Lifer is a terrible book ‑ intensely moving.” The book also won plaudits from Hermann Mannheim, the distinguished penologist ,who commended it for its sociological accuracy and rigorous approach. Phelan was complimented for his straightforward discussion of sex in Jail Journey (1940) by George Orwell in a review for the literary magazine Horizon:
If Macartney’s Walls have Mouths is to be believed some prisons are such hotbeds of vice that even the warders are infected. Mr. Phelan’s revelations are less lurid, but they are certainly bad enough. Over sixty unnatural forms of the sexual act are now practised in Dartmoor and Parkhurst. The thing is taken for granted and joked about by prisoners, warders and everyone else connected with a prison.
In Phelan’s view the denial of conjugal rights by the prison authorities was not part of the punishment but the punishment itself.
Within a few years he had fulfilled his adolescent dream to become an acclaimed author, ironically as a direct consequence of his incarceration. His skill in merging autobiography and fiction into ripping yarns about crooks and outcasts led to commercial success and secured lucrative transatlantic deals with reputable publishers like Secker and Warburg, Victor Gollancz, Heinemann and George Harrap. Phelan was not just an interesting man who chose to write but an accomplished writer whose prose, in his best books, stands up even today. The ambience of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is redolent of Jail Journey. Phelan was also now in great demand in Wardour Street as a scriptwriter and received fees for his short stories and poems published in magazines like Argosy and New Writing and newspapers like the London Evening Standard:
One day Dylan Thomas sat down beside me, to drink black coffee at the Madrid in Soho. Next day I was scriptwriter in a film company, with Dylan and the rest of the boys. Many of the films were about forestry work, lorry-drivers, trawler men and the life. I got out on the road a great deal, collecting material. It was the next thing to being a tramp ‑ I had found the halfway house.
In Parkhurst he had been visited several times by a left-wing idealist called Jill Hayes and in 1937 not long after his release from jail the couple married secretly and Seumas, their son, was born the following year. Phelan’s first wife, Dora, who had lived with him at 296 Beaufort Street in the Dingle in Liverpool, gets only a passing mention in his books and his daughter, Catherine Mary, from his first marriage, born on October 21st, 1922, is excluded entirely. There is not much mention of Jill either in his published reminiscences except to say that during the war she was confined to a lunatic asylum with what was diagnosed as “shell shock” and received a frontal lobotomy. With one exception, Phelan’s philosophy prevented him from accepting responsibility for anyone but himself. When Seumas was cast adrift by his mother’s serious mental illness and subsequent early death, Phelan came to the rescue and took his young son with him on his travels. For a few years he was forced to try to balance fatherhood with his compulsion to rove and his determination to write.
Phelan had appreciated through his wide reading that from the earliest days of civilisation the vagabond had gripped the popular imagination of the townsman. Tramp writing traded on English middle class nostalgia for a pre-industrial “green and pleasant land”. None of Phelan’s literary friends suspected he was a vagabond but one or two journalists in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and The George public houses spread rumours that he might be an undercover MI5 operative. Phelan was arrogant, always alone, and tight-lipped, making him ideal spymaster material. The newspapers described him at different times as a murderer, a literary genius, a thespian and a revolutionary leader.
At arguably the height of his literary fame, in 1945, he made a shrewd commercial decision to “come out” and start writing about his life as a roadster. Although critical of much of the modern writing on tramps he acknowledged Jack London and Jim Tully and the Leeds-born shellback Bart Kennedy in the United States, Maxim Gorky in Russia, the swagman Banjo Patterson and WH Davies the Welsh poet tramp as worthy successors to George Borrow. The twists of many of his short stories, however, owed more to O Henry and Rudyard Kipling than any of these writers. He was hard to pin down by a conservative Irish literary establishment and failed to register, despite his wish to be known as a great Irish writer.
Although Phelan did a bit more pike-padding after his release from jail he now considered himself to be a “postman”, a term which harked back to the time when the post-chaise was the fastest thing on the road. Men like Stornoway Slim, Shellback Marley and Listin Jemmy Suttle were restless individuals who could hitchhike hundreds of miles a day driven on by an insatiable urge to reach the far horizon. No matter how far a postman travelled in a day he always wanted to push on just that little bit further. In America they were referred to as comets but postmen behaved more like migratory birds.
There were probably about twelve thousand tramps on British roads after World War II, one for every five-mile stretch, but “cocks of the road” like Phelan were an uncommon sight. They dressed smartly and travelled light with only a small attache case, more closely resembling those middle-aged men in windjammers on the hard shoulder carrying trade plates than the popular image of a tramp. On their long journeys postmen often heard intimate confessions from their “chauffeurs” and freely exchanged ideas. Their routes were never random and always planned with the specific intention of calling on a select group of sponsors who gave pounds rather than pence. Phelan’s novels suggest he had a particular fondness for Suffolk, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Cumbria and anywhere that lay on the Holyhead road.
Professional tramps like Phelan made their living through a ritualistic game called “fadging” or “mumping”. Beggary and mendacity were criminal offences, so the tramp’s patter had to be ingenious and backed up by corroborative written evidence. In Dartmoor he had learned to assess the capricious moods of insane murderers from their body language and intonation. He also came to admire the deviousness and resourcefulness of hardened criminals, picking up tips that he used after his release to survive the dangers of the road. Phelan’s unique “line of guff” helped him to stay one jump ahead and elevated him to the standing of a postman cock.
In the course of his roving he had the good fortune to encounter one of the very few female postmen, a woman called Kathleen (Kaye) Newton, who had hit the roads after being sexually harassed by her boss and who would become his third wife and inseparable travelling companion. She describes how the two first met:
About six feet tall, he wore a leather jacket and corduroy trousers. A large black hat was pushed to the back of his head and around his neck was knotted a red silk scarf. He strolled across the road and stood in front of me and grinned. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world. High, wide and handsome. I had never seen anyone more colourful or alive-looking. He stood and looked at me a while, I stared back. Then in a deep, lilting, Irish voice, he said, “And where might you be going?
Me ‑ I said nothing, just kept looking.
Then he spoke again. “You didn’t answer me. Where might you be going?”
“Nowhere,” I replied.
“I’m going there myself,” he said, “Do you mind if I come along a bit of the way with you?”
We turned and headed out of Garstang together.
I’m fond of saying that the road is like one great supermarket. Whatever you want is there for the asking. Even a husband.
When tired of travelling or when the weather was bad Phelan retired to write in country houses, like that of his agent and publisher, Peter Davies, in Stony Stratford or in caravans parked on farmland. He also stayed at Susie Black’s boarding house on Parliament Hill in London. After he had finished typing for the day he wandered the wilder parts of Hampstead Heath and at night in bed listened to the traffic on the Finchley Road heading in the direction of the Great North Road.
In We Follow the Roads (1949) Phelan describes how tramps left chalk mark ciphers outside the entrance gates of houses. The commonest a tepee, indicated a “soft mark”. If the occupant usually gave a shilling a number one was inserted inside the inverted V and if a meal was also provided a horizontal line would be drawn over its point. A circle with a dot signified a “dead mark”, a householder hostile to beggars. Phelan’s self-confidence allowed him to tackle even the “dead hard marks” indicated by a z, who invariably called the police at the first sight of a tramp. A “field day” was vagrant parlance for a person who was a direct descendant of Good King Wenceslas and would give money to anyone who knocked at the door, whereas “an ordinary call” would reward only a polished “line of guff” with a shilling.
Phelan’s parents, and the Christian Brothers, had encouraged him to become a priest, but “paddincans” and “jungles” (deserted houses and barns) became his seminaries. The paddincan was a cheap lodging house costing about eightpence a night where up to ten tramps shared a communal dormitory, two in each bed and always sleeping face to face as dictated by roadster convention. At dusk the tramps would drift into the paddincan from the road and the evening would be spent in front of an open fire exchanging stories. Agreements were then forged as to which road out each would follow the next day.
The Irish town of Kinnegad was a mecca for vagabonds, gypsies, puppeteers, ballad singers and tinkers.It was here as a young man that Phelan had met Lumpy Red Fox, the king of the Irish byways, who gave him his roadster name of Dollcie (showy, opulent, flashy) Jem. The caravanserai where they stayed had a thatched roof, whitewashed walls and a large kitchen and fireplace with a long table, some forms and a few broken chairs. It was full of people animatedly exchanging stories as if they had just climbed Mount Everest. For the padman the town before last was always the most cherished memory. There were also locations called “lurks”, where the vagabond inexplicably returned over and over again. Some tramps chose houses as their lurks but most were drawn to a particular stretch of road. Phelan adopted the Great North Road, a signpost outside Stockholm and Shap Fell.
Phelan had the call of the wild and was proud to say he was of no fixed abode. Throughout his life he never lost the thrill of passing the last house and seeing the green road ahead. The records held in the BBC archives suggest that he may have had more than a hundred temporary addresses between 1944 and 1966. He hated the oppressive rules of the workhouse tramp accommodation known as “spikes” and avoided them like the plague. He reflected that most old crippled tramps would rather die on the road than be contained in the new Rowton House hostels. The road was now the centre of all his stories but while he was posting he forgot all about books and publishing.
Several other groups of wayfarers were to be found on Britain’s roads. The “young mugs” (fuz faces and bindle stiffs in the USA and dingos in Australia) were the commonest and were despised by the tramps. “Steamers” (steam tug, rhyming slang for mug) were usually homeless city dwellers or brokendown soldiers who craved security and had ended up almost by accident on the highway. If these men failed to find employment quickly they soon became loathsome objects of dirt and disease, infesting the tidy roads and nauseating the housewife. Some of them, described by the tramp as “wheelers”, circled the outskirts of towns, moving from spike to spike carrying all their worldly belongings with them and never venturing up the old roads. In Tramping the Toby, Phelan also pointed out that the petty criminal, the schizophrenic and the religious fanatic were all well represented on Watling Street, The A6 Middle Road and the Stonewall Main (A40). Most of these tragic figures eventually ended up in jails, asylums and monasteries, leaving the road once more to the nomads, who were everywhere at home and had been since the days long ago when there were no villages let alone towns.
As a child I had been frightened of galoshermen, sandmen and gypsies but tramps were always associated with carefree happiness. They were ancient unkempt whiskered men encountered in the Just William books and later glimpsed plodding up the A1 as we headed south on family holidays. Phelan’s detailed descriptions of the padman fitted all my preconceptions. These men with names as colourful as their past wore tattered belted overcoats, old boots and carried a can full of black tea called a drum. Sometimes they had a pheasant’s feather in their cap or carried a staff. Although they told their marks that they had travelled twenty-five miles, a distance that commanded respect, they rarely covered more than ten miles a day, travelling at a leisurely pace of two miles an hour. In contrast to the postman, who often had to reduce the distance he had covered that day, the padman’s world at any one time revolved around a circle with a radius of no more than thirty miles. A few browns and a sprazi (sixpence), with a meal thrown in at the parsonage, was enough to satisfy most padders:
There is one safe general rule; the bigger the load the cheaper the tramp.
The names of the tramps Phelan met on the roads read like potted biographies; Toaster Dick, Pimple Simmons, Tooriladdy, Sunflower Barlow, Fumbler Kingsley, Red Rellahan and Sucker Dudgeon.
The different sub-strains of pad-pikers are detailed in Tramping the Toby (1958). The ‘shuttler’ is a tramp that hurries back and forth like a squirrel in a cage . A few, like Brummy Joe, travelled considerable distances (Barnet to Small Heath, Birmingham) but most shuffled obsessively between two neighbouring towns never varying their trajectory. “Deeners” (tramp slang for a shilling) like Blackjack Andy were hoarders who hid silver about their clothes and “shellbacks” were tramps who pretended to be sailors. Near the end of We Follow the Roads, Phelan described a famous meeting point for all the different sons of rest:
The town of Faringdon is in Berkshire, seventeen miles out of Oxford on the main, and there are a dozen signposts in and by the place. But the big one outside, just west of the houses, is a hub for many roads great and small. The tramps always call it Faringdon Sign Post as if there was only one.
Here is a small patch of grass, where a man may lie to rest when the dusk is coming, to look back along his road or forward along tomorrow’s and it is a peaceful place. The grass is old.
Richmal Crompton Lamburn, a spinster, polio victim and schoolmistress from Bury in Lancashire who lived at the same time as Jim Phelan created the character of William Brown, the scruffy fantasist and attention seeking eleven-year-old gang leader who hated teachers and bossy girls. In The Outlaws and the Tramp, published in 1931, Sandy Dick is intent on conning William and his gang out of a few “deeners”. His line of guff is that the “cult of the vagabond” is a tough and difficult life. The boys are having none of it, with one replying: “You can do jus’ what you like, can’t you, go where you like, eat what you like, and wear what you like, how do you get into it, how can you be one?” Eventually Sandy Dick is forced to flee from the law, with the village policeman reflecting afterwards with thinly concealed admiration, “the time you think you’ve got im nicely copped in Lands End you suddenly find e’s in John o’Groats”. Crompton and Phelan were both edgy writers who defended liberty and the right to unrestricted enjoyment. They lived in a time when children ran free and people were not afraid to open their doors to strangers.
Phelan was never an easy man to get along with. When he was on the road he survived through his resourcefulness and physical strength in a world where violence and vengeance were rife and rough justice prevailed. He held up a mirror to human hypocrisy, rejected his mother’s happy endings and trusted only to his own senses. Sometimes when he tramped “the white” he found it hard to know what was real. Images of foreign Guatemalan towns and future islands implanted in his mind through his father’s adventure stories would rear up, creating in him an inconsolable loss. The sound of his own footfall was his solace. Time meant nothing and he transformed idleness into a creative force. He felt nothing, expected nothing and took nothing but wanted it all. He lived on the margins of civilisation as an outcast and rebel. The road was his provider and each new place represented a fresh chapter:
Most wagon people disliked Johnny-come-lately vagabonds in the same way young mugs queered the pitch for tramps. Before being charged with murder, Phelan had been mistaken for a gypsy felon called Baker and arrested in Liverpool. He remained silent and refused to deny that he was the wanted man. The gypsy tribes and the didicai never forget and even twenty years on he was still made welcome by them. The “says” he heard by their camp fires were written down for posterity in Banshee Harvest (1945) Bog Blossom Stories (1948) Turf Fire Tales (1947) and Vagabond Cavalry (1951)).Wagon Wheels (1951) includes the following testimonial to gypsy life:
But there is another Britain of which the passing traveller seldom catches more than a wistful glimpse ‑ that of nomad gypsies. The lonely small camp on the edge of a moor, or the painted caravans halted in a green lane ‑ these were ancient five hundred years before Shakespeare was born. But they are still there.
Centuries of progress have altered the face of Britain since Shakespeare’s day. Giant cities have grown, and a vast industrial populace bustles eternally about the factories of Birmingham or the offices of London. But the gypsy tents are still on the fringe of the heath, and the painted wagons still wend slowly, unchanged, along the narrow green lanes.
Since Phelan’s day wagon people have increasingly deserted the roads and the professional tramp is virtually extinct. Most of Ireland’s twenty thousand surviving pavees (lucht siúil) still attend fairs, trade horses, tatt scrap metal and breed dogs but now live in towns, where they are ostracised and denigrated for their drunkenness and criminality. In British conurbations endless droves of beggars are herded into hostels and encouraged to sell The Big Issue, in what amounts to institutional vagabondage. Some city centres have “regulars”; like “Tea Cosy Pete”, a sedentary tramp who become an urban myth and provided reassurance for the hurrying folk of Swansea. The recent Big Fat Gypsy Wedding documentary television series in which the depiction of “the quaint customs of Irish ‘pikeys’” became a box office hit in England suggests that the time may be ripe for a relaunch of Jim Phelan’s stories.
By the early1960s, Phelan seemed to have run out of new material. He was still begging rides from passing motorists but there were now far fewer “flash marks” en route to challenge his silvery tongue and inspire new stories. He now considered himself not without some justification to be the last authentic tramp writer and the undisputed heir apparent of George Borrow. In Phelan’s mind, Borrow was a man after his own heart, an original with an unusual writing style who disguised himself as a philologist studying dying Romany languages, but who was really a vagabond. Unfortunately the world had moved on, gypsy stories, however unsentimental, were no longer in vogue and Kerouac and the Beats were the new lonesome travellers.
On January 28th, 2015 I became only the second person to scrutinise the seven folders of archived correspondence between Jim Phelan and his producers at the BBC. The records also contain two unpublished scripts – “Hitch Hiker Goes South”, in which Phelan describes a journey from Cumberland to Marseilles and “The People of the Road”, where he explains the vagabond’s philosophy. Some of his radio broadcasts began with the words “Once I was a tramp pretending to be an author, now I’m an author pretending to be a tramp.” Phelan’s typed and handwritten letters provide many absorbing instances of his indomitable wit, cheek and self-belief. The poste restante facilities which he used in Nailsworth, Hereford, Looe, Bodmin, Chipping Sodbury, Abergavenny and Burley, Moorhouse Farm, Warwick on Eden, Splatford Farm, Kenn near Exeter, Manor Farm near Kettering, Lappers Farm, Wendlebury, Thornhill Farm Headington, Oxford Croxton Lodge, Branston, the School House Blencow, Penrith and The Rose and Crown public house, Yardley Hastings provide additional corroboration of his errant lifestyle and his perpetual criss-crossing of Britain. There is also evidence for his sorties into Europe.
A month before a broadcast called “Jim Phelan Talking”, recorded in Studio 5 of the North Home Service in Manchester, he wrote to Grahame Miller, Head of North Regional Programmes on June 16 1963:
This is Jim Phelan.
A line to say the petrol-exhaust on the south country roads smells heavenly. I see the Shell and Regent companies have adopted my suggestions of last year ‑ I wrote to them both saying that they should scent the bloody exhaust, so that the English people wouldn’t know they were being slowly poisoned. And I’m hanged if they haven’t done it. So now an English country lane doesn’t smell like a rubber-works on fire any more. It’s covered with reeking filthy deadly exhaust ‑ but it smells like an English country lane. Isn’t science wonderful? (You know, they even have fresh-fruit vapours, for spraying in the supermarkets. Shades of Aldous Huxley and memories of “Brave New World”) .We caught some good weather here at last, are both eligible for Pakistan passports ‑ on our face-value anyway; we’ve both got good sun-marks. Am drifting north as from tomorrow ‑ Bideford, Minehead, Bridgwater, Bristol, Gloster, Tewkesbury, Wellington, Chester, Warrington, The Lakes, Penrith and points north. That’s the programme ‑ of course one never knows … Kathleen sends regards. All the best Jim Phelan. Can the talks producer please write to me at: ‑ The Old House, Burley, Ringwood, Hants?
Phelan had several good friends in the BBC. One of his producers wrote that he was a rebellious Irishman of the O’Casey school who only entered cities when he was short of cash and who liked a drop of whiskey, a rare and genuine individual infused with the quirky mentality of the turnpike. In less than two years between 1963 and 1964 he made more than twenty-five BBC broadcasts. His short stories and insights into the life of vagabondage still went down well with British audiences but the later correspondence suggests that even with his scripts he had started to go over old ground, leading to more rejections. The view at the BBC was that his broadcasts were better received when he winged it rather than reading from a script. Following one of his Morning Story broadcasts from Manchester where he read a gypsy romance called “When Two Agree”, one housewife/ telephone operator complained that his accent and dialect were so thick she hadn’t understood a word. The story was described variously by listeners as dull and trivia;, vicious and gruesome with an alien violent outlook; and rich and original with a certain wayward fascination.
Another insight into his lifestyle comes from sections of a letter to Paul Humphreys at BBC North Region:
According to the romani folks, and the ancient Irish superstitions, you should have been thinking “good things” about me!! (The Irish call it Gaysa, the gipsies “buti”, the scientists coincidence. Me, I call it coincidence too ‑ if I happen to be having lunch with a scientist.)
Kathleen and I had a terrific session the other day at the BBC in London. We flagged a car outside Oxford, and he was going to London, so we said okay. He asked what part, and we said Fleet Street, or Soho or Langham Place ‑ anywhere like that. So he was going Great Portland Street, and dropped us outside the Stag’s Head [outside the BBC].
Anyone would have thought it was organised ‑ the Stag’s Head was simply packed with all the people we knew and all the people who wanted to meet us and the folks we wanted to meet. So we drank and taught our way steadily southward ‑ down into a club after closing-time, out into a pub again when opening time arrived, just talking. It was a lovely experience for two tramps just in off the road. We weren’t allowed to purchase even one drink, not even a match, and then when it came nightfall no one believed we were hitting the road again. But we got out to the outskirts and flagged a car, which put us down in Kidlington, five miles from the farm towards which we were headed.
His letters confirmed how much he had depended on Kathleen to help him organise his affairs. As his asthmatic bronchitis deteriorated, the last three or four years of his life were spent mainly in the milder climes of the West Country.
In a later folder Phelan writes to the chief talks producer at the BBC in Birmingham:
I am drifting slowly south, working my way down from “the borders of Scotland” in the general direction of Oxford. (But by “working” I don’t mean taking a job in an office or factory ‑ I just tramp, live on the road all the year around, come back now and again to an old battered caravan when I want to type a story.) I’ve done a few broadcasts on Northern while I was in Cumberland, Westmoreland, Yorkshire and so on, am now getting into your “territory” and shall be drifting down through Rutland and Northants into South Warwick and North Bucks.
In 1964 he made his first television broadcast, a four-part documentary series called Next Place about the Roma people and tramps. In the one surviving episode held in the archives of BBC Cymru Wales Phelan narrates the story of the road and interviews several Welsh vagabonds. He is totally at ease in front of the camera. He has unkempt long grey hair and an open generous smoker’s face and is of stocky build with a barrel chest. He is wearing a misshapen fedora, a weatherbeaten overcoat, a worn suit and a neck scarf. He speaks with a clear if toothless Irish brogue as he promenades at a leisurely pace down a tranquil country lane:
We are only a small populace of the population today. We follow the old ways of things. We tramp the road. I know the road. I’ve had to know it. I’ve tried them all, the happy roads that take you round the world. What does it matter how we die? They couldn’t hold me when my time was done.
Two years later, he discharged himself from hospital against medical advice. Even when seriously ill he could not bear to be detained. As he lay dying he now felt able to pass on more wisdom than when he had waited for the hangman fifty years earlier in Strangeways. Confined to bed in the home of his son Seumas in West London he asked to see his granddaughter, Amanda. When she came into the room he took off his oxygen mask and they laughed together for a few minutes. He then told her his three rules for life: “don’t grass”, “never lie to your loved ones”, and, most important of all “stay alive”.
Not a single obituary followed his death. He had vanished once more, but this time there were no reassuring “fadging” telegrams or roadside sightings. When his last book, Nine Murderers and Me, was launched in 1967 there was no mention of his passing by its publishers. The ambiguity that had characterised his life hung on after his death. In the television documentary he had asked fellow son of rest James Humphreys where he would say he had come from when he arrived at his next destination of the Isle of Wight. Humphries had replied coyly, “I may say Heaven.”
The road to nowhere begins somewhere but never ends. It is still lonely without a man on it. Seumas idolised his father. Happy childhood memories of being spoilt on the knee of the model Nina Hammett and being serenaded by Paul Robeson in a Soho cafe lingered into his adult life. Amanda remembers her grandfather for his adorable smell and the lullabies he composed for her as a child. Kathleen, his fellow traveller, was with him to the end. How I regret not being treated to one of his last lines of guff under the A1 signpost for Hatfield and the North on my way home from Tangiers in 1965. Fifty years on Jim Phelan is still laughing and counting the milestones.
I would like to thank Mike Nellis, the first person to analyse the Phelan BBC archives and author of Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, Ian Cutler the curator of the Cynical Reflections website, David Cowell author of Line of Guff: A Tramp’s Tale and Les Singleton, Jim Phelan’s grandson from his first marriage. This quartet of experts provided vital unpublished source material and answered my many questions with patience and kindness. Tony Wailey increased my curiosity to learn more about Phelan and supplied detail regarding George Garrett’s travels. Finally my thanks go to Trish Hayes, archivist at the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham.
Andrew Lees is professor of neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London and University College London. His most recent books include The Hurricane Port: A Social History of Liverpool (Random House, 2011), William Richard Gowers 1845-1915: Exploring the Victorian Brain (OUP, 2012) and Alzheimer’s: The Silent Plague (Penguin E-book, 2012).