What is this life if, full of care ...
WH Davies was the kind of writer you don’t get so much now. No writers’ groups for him. No self-promotion on Twitter.
Born to a poor Welsh family in the late nineteenth century, he became apprenticed to a maker of picture frames. Bored and wanting adventure, he started to take casual work and travel, sailing to America in 1893.
There, he spent six years as a tramp – a hobo. He stole free rides from freight trains, took bits and bobs of casual work, begged door to door. He worked on cattle ships across the Atlantic. Occasionally he passed his winters in a series of Michigan jails (by agreement with those jailing him; they profited from the arrangement.)
In 1908, in London, he heard about the Klondike gold rush and sailed to Canada. He jumped on board a freight train, hoping to cross the continent on it, but slipped and was caught under the wheels. He lost his foot immediately, then his leg below the knee.
He never made his fortune in a gold mine. He left his life of tramping behind him.
He returned to Europe, to London, and started to write poetry. He still had no money, and lived in hostels for the homeless, and in those places writing poetry was something to be done strictly in private. To raise the funds for his first self-published book of verse, he had to save some cash. That meant leaving the hostel to spend six months tramping the countryside, living in barns.
In 1905, he published his work, and sold it by pushing his 200 copies through the letterboxes of wealthy literati, asking for payment if they liked it.
Enough of them did.
Some high-minded journalists and other opinion-formers gradually got behind his work, and Davies gradually became a bestseller and a fixture (albeit an odd one) on the London literary scene.
He’s best known now for his memoir of those years a hobo – Autobiography of a Supertramp, a book I strongly recommend. And also for this:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
And so on.
He’s right, isn’t he?
I’m signed up to some self-pub-oriented newsletters, and one of the things that I find permanently daunting about those things is the sheer damn productivity of some writers. Books, four or five of them a year. Ads on three platforms, expertly created, tested and monitored. And newsletters. And conferences. And podcasts. And – blimey.
Those guys probably work out four times weekly, arrange amazing date nights, and have everyone’s Christmas presents already bought and wrapped.
I’m not like that. Nor, most likely are you. Nor do you actually have to be like that to succeed.
And yes. I’m a big believer that the activity of “writing a book” needs to involve time spent at a laptop, hitting keys. If you don’t do that, you’re not a writer.
But the best ideas don’t always come from screentime. Sometimes you need to take the dogs for a walk. Or go for a swim. Or walk under green trees and watch where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
I’d say most of my biggest ideas have come that way. Never in isolation, of course. You also have to read your research. To start mapping your ideas on paper (or screen, or post-it notes, or an assembly of well-trained labradoodles.)
But still. That melting place in your brain where you are considering a problem without quite knowing that you’re considering it. That place where the light comes in sideways and finds new things to illuminate?
That place is precious, and we writers should treasure it.
Davies’ poem ends:
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
So that’s the message for this week. Take your phone or laptop and hurl it, right now, into the nearest duckpond. Walk until you see some wild clematis or a squirrel on manoeuvres.
Think of your characters, then forget them.
Let the magic happen.
And how about you? Is the nearest duckpond full of your expensively acquired electrical gadgets? Do you have to walk a very long way to find wild clematis? And where do you get your ideas? What do you do to encourage sweet inspiration to bless your endeavours? Let me know below and we'll all have a Heated Debate.