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June 17, 2013

I’m working on the revisions to a teenage novel at the moment, about a boy who is given an infinite number of wishes by a genie, and my publisher has suggested that the genie might take the form of a tramp. I am not altogether sold on that idea; but it got me thinking about the word tramp and the way its connotations have changed. It seems to be used these days, with a strong flavour of contempt, to mean a dirty smelly homeless man, and I’ve noticed that it’s regarded as an inherently comic word by the children at my son’s primary school.

It’s odd to think now that tramps had a certain cachet back in the 1970s. There was the band, Supertramp, of course (named after WH Davies’s 1908 book, The Autobiography of a Supertramp). In David Bowie’s 1974 song ‘Rebel Rebel’, there is the refrain ‘Rebel, rebel, how could they know/ Hot tramp, I love you so!’ And in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ we have the line: ‘Tramps like us/ Baby we were born to run’.

The word carried connotations of wildness and freedom – and a tramp was also a term for a sexually promiscuous woman. Unbelievably there was even a perfume called Tramp, for which the advertising slogan was ‘She’s wearing Tramp and everybody loves her!’ Hmm…

I wonder if part of the reason for the word’s changed connotations is that tramps themselves have changed: they used to roam around, passing different parts of the year in different parts of the country (or even, like WH Davies, travelling back and forth across the Atlantic), begging, doing odd jobs, hitching rides on trains, seeking seasonal work, and finding somewhere warm to pass the winter (Davies used to spend his American winters in prison). There was actually a tramping culture, with its own secret sign language, and established migratory routes. Orwell wrote about this culture based on his own experiences as a voluntary vagrant in Down and Out in Paris and London. There were places for tramps to stay, like the workhouse casual ward he describes in his essay ‘The Spike’.

But today’s tramps don’t do very much tramping. They tend to keep to their patch. Perhaps this is because the institutions that used to support old-style tramping have disappeared – there aren’t any casual wards, and there’s less seasonal work than there used to be.

So I don’t think I’ll make my genie a tramp – though in the 70s, I might have done.

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