Friday, 4 May 2012


'Tramps' is a short story written by Malcolm Lowry that remains unpublished. (University of British Columbia Lowry Archives 25-9). Originally conceived as part of the collection entitled So We Live Forever Taking Leave.

Gordon Bowker says that the story was written at Inglewood after Lowry’s return from the Far East in 1927 along with ‘China’ and ‘Enter One In Sumptuous Armour’ (Pursued By Furies Pg. 139). Judging by the style of the story, we must assume that this was one of the earliest pieces produced by Lowry after his trip to the Far East. The story has none of the modernist influences of later works based on the voyage such as ‘Goya The Obscure’.

Perhaps it can be dated pre-1930 possibly before he went to Blackheath or Cambridge, which would date it as Summer/Autumn 1927. The story has under tones of Lowry’s reading of Scandinavian literature from this period such as Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On, Herman Bang’s Denied A Country and the works of Knut Hamsun. There is mention of several Far Eastern locations – Singapore, Zamboanga, Manila, Makassar and Tsjang-tsjang. Lowry visited Singapore on 13th June 1927.

There is no documentary evidence that he visited either Zamboanga or Manila both in the Philippines or the Indonesian city of Makassar on the Far East voyage. Lowry also mentions the island of Zamboanga in ‘Goya The Obscure’ published in 1930 . These Far Eastern references may have been influenced by Richard Eberhart’s poem A Bravery of Earth published in 1930. Richard Eberhart’s poem reflected his experiences at Cambridge University and his experience as a ship's hand in the Far East. Therefore, the Far Eastern references may point to a later date possibly 1930 for the version held at University of British Columbia. Tsjang-tsjang is Lowry’s first use of this fictive Eastern name for the port of Dairen which he visited in 1927 reappearing in his first novel Ultramarine.

The story is set on a pier on an unnamed river where two sailors reminisce about their adventures at sea while looking at two “tramp” steamers” tied up a the pier. The sailors’ talk meanders through memories both real and imagined which possibly reflects Lowry’s experiences on his Far East voyage of overheard conversations between the crew. Lowry attempts to unearth “the very saga of the sea” which lies hidden in memory and dream.

The idea of memory and how it distorts also has parallels in ‘China’ another short story from this period. Lowry appears to be formulating the premise that once you have made a voyage then it is more easy to imagine other voyages: “The tree of memory was here. And how much more swiftly in his mind, without words, a voyage could be anywhere. How easily he was transported to places even he had never known”. Lowry plays with the idea of memory and reality again in the short story ‘China’.

The sailor continues his fantasy as the ship voyages out in dream perhaps reflecting Lowry’s boyish fantasies of the East – meeting a sultan and his harem or trafficking in strange merchandise which are straight out of Lowry’s youthful reading of boy’s magazines. Lowry concludes; “But deep within you, rusted into your memory, buried beneath dust and ashes, your true voyages still trace eternally their course, where shipwreck, sudden death, the very saga of the sea lies hidden”, which would appear to be a precursor for Lowry’s incomplete epic The Voyage That Never Ends.

The two sailors argue before eventually falling asleep during which time the two ships take up their conversation in their dreams, repeating exaggerated and distorted memories. Gordon Bowker has noted “it sounded like Lowry conversing ironically with himself” (Pursued By Furies Pg. 139). The exaggeration of one of the sailors telling yarns is reminiscent of Lowry’s own bar-room tales he repeatedly told after his voyage. One sailor says; “You’re getting so that you don’t belong to anything. Just now you may have been lying about your nationality, just for fun, but soon you’ll have difficulty remembering your name.” This reflects Lowry’s own feeling of isolation both at sea and on his return, his use of Norwegian personas in later stories starting with his alter ego Dana Hilliot in Ultramarine and perhaps the loss of memory through drink.

The story has some striking imagery, which has become Lowry’s trademark as a writer; “rust traced a map of the world on their hulls”, “the first searched again within the battered thesaurus of the past”; “the ships had closed their faces to the dark” as Lowry transfers the memories of voyaging, ship wrecks and sudden death from the sailors to the ships. The names of the ships are worn off which appears to symbolise their loss of identity similar to one of the sailors forgetting their names. The names of ships both real and imagined continually arise in Lowry’s work.

The story is one of the first in which Lowry makes use of Scandinavian references, which may reflect his time in Blackheath studying with E.E. Kellett for entry to Cambridge University in 1927/28. Kellett published The Northern Saga in 1929, which studies Norse myths. It is possible that Lowry was influenced by Kellett’s studies. Kellett may also be the source of Lowry’s reading of Scandinavian literature such as Grieg, Berg and Hamsun. There are references to shoes being bought in Norway, Norway being a fine country; the Queen of Norway being George V’s sister – Princess Maud of Wales.

Maud was Queen of Norway as wife of King Haakon V11; “Denmark’s the biggest country in Norway” refers to the Kalmar Union in which Norway remained with Denmark until 1814, a total of 436 years. During the national romanticism of the 19th century, this period was by some referred to as the "400-Year Night", since all of the kingdom's royal, intellectual, and administrative power was centred in Copenhagen in Denmark; there is reference to Schleswig-Holstein belonging to the Danes - Schleswig and Holstein have at different times belonged in part or completely to either Denmark or Germany, or have been virtually independent of both nations. The referenda on nationality following the First World War would have still been within Lowry’s memory and is an early example of Lowry’s interest in politics/history being incorporated into his work.

There is also an early example of Lowry referring to real ships – R.M.S. Mauretania an ocean liner operated by Cunard Line which Lowry as a youth probably have seen the in the River Mersey.

Lowry uses the term Western Ocean, probably picked up from his reading of Joseph Conrad to describe the Atlantic. Lowry makes reference to Dairen but uses the Russian name Dalny for the port; “loaded bulk oil in Dalny during the Russo-Japanese War”.

Lake Charles in Louisiana is referred to as a ”spindle head”. There is no record of Lowry visiting the port in on his 1928 voyage to America to see Conrad Aiken but this may have been how he knew the port. Lowry uses several nautical terms or slang which re-occur in Ultramarine and his other stories of this period – hausers, wirerunners, ringbolt, ticket, “went deep water”, windbag, bosun, to the coaltips, “an old laundry boat”, “old canvas dodger”, “picking up washing”, “sail for sour apples with yards on the backstays, “not an old haystack like this”, “down to spindleheads”, “swaggle bellied tug”. Some of these must be based on his Far East trip but others must be from his reading of magazines such as Blue Peter mentioned in Ultramarine.

 See my post Just A Dirty Old Tramp for source of song sheet used to illustrate post.

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