Thursday 30 July 2020

Blackberrying with W.H. Hudson

I was out blackberrying today on Mitcham Common, amid clouds of Gatekeeper butterflies and the odd Purple Hairstreak, among  other beauties. Whenever I'm picking blackberries I'm teased by the vague memory of a passage somewhere in W.H. Hudson, in which, while similarly engaged, he meets an extraordinary tramp. After more than one failed attempt, I've finally tracked the passage down: it's in an essay called 'Rural Rides', collected in Afoot in England.
  The tramp, whom Hudson initially describes as 'gorgeous', is a striking figure – 'a huge man, over six feet high, nobly built, suggesting a Scandinavian origin, with a broad blond face, good features and prominent blue eyes, and his hair was curly and shone like gold in the sunlight'. But there were bruises on his face, suggestive to Hudson of a drunken brawl, and 'Alas! He had the stamp of the irreclaimable blackguard on his face.' His clothes were a gaudy mix of ill-fitting, once fancy, now  worn-out garments, topped by a 'long black frock-coat, shiny in places, and a small dirty grey cap'.
  Walking along the hedgerow, Hudson and the tramp help themselves to the abundant blackberries. Hudson remarks conversationally that it is late to be picking blackberries (it is November) and that 'the Devil in these parts ... flies abroad in October to spit on the bramble bushes and spoil the fruit' – and that it's worse in Norfolk and Suffolk, where 'the Devil goes out at Michaelmas and shakes his verminous trousers over the bushes.'
  The tramp is not amused: 'he went on sternly eating blackberries, and then remarked in a bitter tone, "That Devil they talk about must have a busy time, to go messing about blackberry bushes in addition to all his other important work."'
  Hudson does not respond, and the tramp continues in the same tone: '"Very fine, very beautiful all this" – waving his hand to indicate the hedge, its rich tangle of purple-red stems and coloured leaves, and scarlet fruit and silvery old-man's-beard. "An artist enjoys seeing this sort of thing, and it's nice for all those who go about just for the pleasure of seeing things. But when it comes to a man tramping twenty or thirty miles a day on an empty belly, looking for work which he can't find, he doesn't see it in quite the same way."
  "True," I returned with indifference.
  But he was not to be put off by my sudden coldness, and proceeded to inform me that he had just returned from Salisbury Plain, that it had been noised abroad that ten thousand men were wanted by the War Office to work in forming new camps. On arrival he found it was not so – it was all a lie – men were not wanted – and he was now on his way to Andover, penniless and hungry and –
  By the time he had got to that part of his story we were some distance apart, as I had remained standing still while he, thinking me still close behind, had gone on picking blackberries and talking. He was soon out of sight.'

I'm sure we have all met people like that tramp – blinded to all else by an implacable sense of grievance, incapable of simple gratitude, and unable to acknowledge happiness, goodness or beauty for what they are. Hudson's is a vivid portrait of a particularly striking example of the type; no wonder it has lingered at the edge of my memory for so long.


  1. Isolation and uncertainty can be devils ...

  2. Very true, RT – thanks for the link. An interesting essay on the inexhaustible Dickinson.