Married life on the road: a tale of two vagabonds
The remarkable lives of two tramp writers, huband and wife Jim and Kathleen Phelan
Jim Phelan: his time in prison for his role in an IRA killing provided the apprenticeship for his career as a writer
In 1944, Jim Phelan, already 50 years of age, a confirmed vagabond and published writer, spied a woman tramp hitchhiking in the opposite direction along the A6 in Lancashire. Kathleen Newton, still an apprentice tramp at the age of 27, picks up the tale as follows:
I saw a man sauntering towards me on the opposite side of the road… . When he was directly opposite, he stopped and stared across. … 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?”
I’m fond of saying that the road is like one great supermarket. Whatever you want is there for the asking.
Even a husband.
Kathleen was already familiar with the writings of Jack London and WH Davies. “Here was a carefree irresponsibility to match my own. So I went off with him – and married him – just-like-that.”
The pair were married in Hampstead, London, in 1944. By the end of his life Jim had published 26 books plus poetry, song lyrics, plays, film scores and narrated TV documentaries. Kathleen Phelan published nothing in her lifetime apart from the small hand-printed pamphlets of her adventures she sold along the way, yet following her death aged 97, and after 77 years on the road, three completed manuscripts were found in her caravan together with drafts of further writings and hundreds of letters and postcards. But first a brief history of Jim.
James Leo (Jim) Phelan was born in Woodfield Cottages, Inchicore, Dublin, in 1895. His parents were storytellers from what he describes as a peasant background. Jim embarked on his first tramping adventure at the age of four, using his natural gift in chicanery to make the 100-mile trip to Tipperary. When in danger, he wrote, it is the tramp’s natural impulse to, “turn around and head for the horizon.”
At the age of seven, fearing a beating from his father, Jim headed off to the canal basin and hid himself under a tarpaulin covering a barge. By the age of 13, he managed to sail as far as Glasgow where he joined a gang of slum kids and, “Learnt to speak Scotch”. Phelan was an infant prodigy, already at school by the age of 21 months (with a photo and school certificate to prove it) and reading better than most adults by the age of three. But, to the disappointment of his parents and teachers, his destiny did not lie in academia.
Phelan’s tramping career in Ireland, Britain, America and France, uninterrupted by his first marriage to Dora Mary O’Brien and the birth of their daughter Catherine Mary, was brought to an abrupt end when at the age of 29 he was sentenced to hang, under the law of joint enterprise, for being present at the scene of a fatal shooting linked to his Irish republican associations.
Sadly, Dora died of septicaemia shortly after Jim’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The 13 years that Jim served in six different prisons provided the apprenticeship for his career as a writer, following which he married the political activist Jill Constance Hayes, who had befriended him in prison. Their son Seumas was born the following year. Tragedy struck for a second time when Jill suffered a head injury in the blitz from which she died later in hospital. It was following this event that Jim encountered and married his third wife Kathleen.
Kathleen was born in Easington Colliery, Co Durham, in 1917. She later studied physical education and English at university at the insistence of her father, a deputy manager of the local mine, who considered teaching to be the most appropriate profession for his daughter.
But even at that age Kathleen was a confirmed vagabond. On one of her trips to London as a teenager to frequent the bohemian scene, she met a Californian who had tramped across North and South America and was now tramping around Europe: “Until then I had never thought about vagabondage as a profession.”
But to return to Jim and Kathleen’s 22 years on the road. Their modus operandi involved acquiring a horse-drawn caravan which would serve as Jim’s office and where he would spend the winter months writing. During the finer weather the caravan was always moved on to its next destination – more often by vehicle than horse – and the rest of the year spent tramping Britain, Ireland and the Continent on foot. The couple were also well known in bohemian circles, not least regular drinking sessions with Dylan Thomas et al in London and the Gallimard gang in Paris.
A word here on the Phelans’ relationship to money; not entirely divorced from their relationship to alcohol. True, there were times when significant amounts of money came to them, either from book and film deals or winning at the racetrack, but they attached no pleasure to acquiring money for its own sake, as illustrated by the following story from their stay in Killincarrig, Co Wicklow.
Jim had received a £100 royalty cheque for a previous book and went to the local pub to celebrate. Word got round and they ended up not only buying drinks all round but handing out “fivers” too. At the time the Phelans were living in a converted cowshed 25 miles outside of Dublin where Jim was to write Turf Fire Tales, a collection of Irish short stories.
At weekends the pair would hit the pubs in Dublin but the last bus back to Killincarrig departed at 10.55pm, five minutes before closing time. Leaving the Pearl Bar before closing time, a hangout for writers near the Irish Times offices, was unthinkable but fortunately the Times editor, Bertie Smyllie, who also lived in Killincarrig, would frequently persuade the driver to hold up the bus. The days that Smyllie did not frequent the bar Kathleen and Jim would walk the 25 miles home rather than leave the pub five minutes early.
So continued the Phelans’ madcap life until Jim developed lung cancer which eventually hospitalised him. But, true his promise never to be confined by four walls again, Jim discharged himself against medical advice. But confined he eventually was, in bed at the home of his son Seumas in west London. Shortly before he died, and still anxious to pass on his wisdoms on life, Jim called for 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’.” Seumas joined The Irish Times and later moved to Australia where he became a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald. Jim’s grandson Liam is editor of its Sunday paper, the Sun-Herald, and recalls hitchhiking with Kathleen after Jim’s death. Jim also had six grandchildren from his first marriage.
As for Kathleen, she could not cope with Jim’s death and took off blindly tramping solo across Britain, to where she cannot remember, eventually coming back to her senses on spotting her caravan in a field from a car in which she had taken a lift. Kathleen’s second solo trip took three years in which she walked and hitchhiked, with her few possessions in a basket on wheels, through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Leba-non, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and ending in Nepal, adding other countries on the return trip.
Among Kathleen’s possessions was her chess set: “You can enter a cafe practically anywhere in the world and by setting up your chess board, you’ll soon get to know people.” Jim had written regularly for Chess Magazine and both he and Kathleen were able to beat champions of both two- and three-dimensional chess during the time they spent at London’s Mandrake Club.
During her north Africa and Asia tramp, when not sleeping under the stars, Kathleen was frequently invited to stay with the locals she encountered along the way, including humble dwellings and caves as well as palaces and city apartments. On her return Kathleen was able to add Arabic and Urdu to the 11 languages she already spoke. Starting in 1973, Kathleen tramped the American continent for seven years from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego and all points east and west. Tramping in the United States was often more fraught, being literally kicked off subway benches by police in New York and pursued by helicopters in California as described in the following letter to a friend:
“Lots of insanity over here – walking for instance up a beautiful canyon road about 2 weeks ago – lots of cars – no other maniacs on two feet. Kay, believe this … THEY SENT THE SHERIFF OF MALIBU IN A HELICOPTER WITH A PILOT TO LAND AND FIND OUT WHAT I WAS DOING. WALKING, I SAID. W-W-WALKING-HE SAYS!”
There was also the anxiety of crossing the border into Canada or Mexico every three months to renew her visa. When crossing borders in Latin America Kathleen had to frequently lie about where she was staying and exaggerate the funds she had available – which in reality was often nothing.
For the last 35 years of her life Kathleen returned to her former mode of existence, moving up and down Britain in various caravans she had towed from site to site by those she befriended on her travels. From the postcards received by her lifelong friend Grace Jackman, she pitched on at least 36 different caravan sites around Britain, some more than once, and from which she continued tramping around Britain and Europe whenever the wanderlust returned. An email from the former owner of the Mayfield Caravan Park in Cirencester describes Kathleen’s final years:
“Several years, sites and letters later, she once again turned up on our doorstep … could she come back “for the winter”. Of course we welcomed her back and here she stayed until she passed away asleep in her caravan (as she would have wished) in the early hours of Wednesday 26th November, 2014 – two days before her 97th birthday.”
Jim and Kathleen Phelan’s stories are told separately in The Lives And Extraordinary Adventures Of Fifteen Tramp Writers From The Golden Age Of Vagabondage (2020) as part of Feral House’s Tramp Lit Series. Feral House are also publishing Kathleen Phelan’s autobiographical works later this year as There is Only One Road and it Goes Everywhere.