Kathleen Newton Phelan was the most extraordinary of women. Born and died in England, but the life she lived took her to, as she would say, the back of beyond and back. What makes a person want to roam the planet? We’re not sure, and we don’t think Kathleen fully understood herself, but we are lucky that she defied convention and expectation to keep moving.
Kathleen met and married Irish author (and fellow vagabond) Jim Phelan after World War Two. She was not recognized as a writer then, nor after Jim’s death in 1966. Her notes, sketches, and diaries were found after her death at age 97 in 2014.
Most books, by the time the reader sees them, have been reviewed and revised by the author and editors numerous times. Kathleen’s work here is compiled from found typewritten papers and handwritten pages, and, except for small notes in the margins, unedited. We also suspect that some names may actually be placeholders when one was forgotten, to return later to correct.
We decided it would be unfair to her memory to extensively rework her manuscript without her involvement. So, we present to you her story, very much as we found it.
A word to the reader: I like meeting people, and I love talking, and I always want to know how other people live and what they think. Quite simply, I have always wanted to know everything about everything. A tall order, as anyone will agree. But there are people like that. Not many, fortunately, or civilization might fall apart overnight.
People often ask me how many miles I have travelled. I do not know—or care. It should be borne in mind that I live on the road, have no home or fixed residence. I keep going all the year round, winter and summer alike. I am always intending to follow the sun to a warmer climate. It never works out that way. Usually, I find myself in Morocco when the temperature is over 100 degrees and in the Yukon when it is 50 below.
Apart from these occasions I simply go. All day, every day, I just flag a car and go wherever that motorist is going.We lived in a small hotel down beside the port, in Luili Street. It was really a brothel—used mainly by cops. We gave it respectability.
No town or city dweller, no normal civilised person, can understand what it means to live plan-less that way. Any city resident who tried to live as I do would be mad. On the other hand, if I tried to live for any length of time in Paris or Pittsburgh, in London or Birmingham, I would be a half-wit, or worse. It takes all kinds to make a world.
This is not an autobiography in the sense of “I was born here, educated elsewhere, and did this or that in the orderly procession of a lifetime.” It is just a random telling of anecdotes about my life along the road. After all, the road is my home and I have lived there for a very long time. I am a bridge piece between the old-style tramp with the stick and bundle and the backpacking drifter seen nowadays along the roads of the world.
Money: Nil. Address: No fixed residence. You could say those are my vital statistics.
It was this trip in about 1952, the first of many, which gave me my passion for France. If I am out on the road at sun-up, just drifting along quietly, very quietly, while people are still sleeping in the towns and villages, I have nostalgia and a longing for those French roads. Getting up in the grey of the dawning, waiting for the sun to rise, while a clock in a village church strikes the hour, I saunter and smile and love all the world. Jim and I drifted down the road to Abbéville long before there was any stream of traffic. An elderly man gave us a lift and said he would take us there.
Abbéville was badly shattered, having been bombed by both sides during the war. The rebuilding of the city had begun, but only just. Piles of rubbish lay everywhere, most of the sidewalks were still broken up, and there were a thousand gaps, like broken teeth, between the shops on even the busiest streets. Our driver knew every inch of the district, both in peace and war. He had been an officer in the Engineers in the French army, had taken part in many of the battles in and near Abbéville. Thus we had a real conducted tour of the city, or rather of the ruins.
After Abbéville he took us along the Paris road, and went out of his way to show us the site of an ancient battlefield—“Long past—long past,” he said, “but famous.” It was hard to understand his accent and we said we had never heard of the battle. The old Frenchman was badly disappointed. One of the places—the few places—his tone implied, where the English had beaten the French. Sad, sad, that we should not know the name of that place.
While I was trying to think of Mons, Verdun, Armentières, and other places that couldn’t possibly be the right one from his pronunciation, we came to a narrow road with a signpost. The motorist halted and pointed. “There! That way!”
And see, there was the name all right—Crécy. Definitely before my time. We parted from the ex-major after leaving the Crécy battlefield and got a lift right to the heart of Paris. In the early evening, we were walking down Rue Vavin. Vavin was one of those ancient streets which are really separate little villages, surviving practically untouched in the midst of the city’s rush and bustle. Clear to Rue Raspail and less than a hundred meters from the Luxembourg gardens, Rue Vavin led its own life and went its own way. There were few foreign visitors in the area. A couple of hotels and small cafés; it was an oasis. Jim and I fell in love with it from the first minute. We stayed at a tiny hotel, Hotel L’Espérance—and the years we stayed in Paris, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time, we never lived anywhere else.
I visited the street not so long ago and it was still more or less the same, except that it was impossible to walk along the pavements, as residents’ cars were mounted on them at either side.
No longer was one able to see the street. When we lived there none of the inhabitants possessed cars, except for the doctor and the nightclub owner. It is pleasing to think back and remember that I was lucky enough to know the place and myriad other small streets when they were exactly as they must have been when Utrillo painted them.
In Paris, we became acquainted with Marcel Duhamel and met Sartre and Raymond Queneau and others of the Gallimard gang. It was also a time when chess was very much part of my life. There was a chess café in a small back street called Rue Ciseaux. I always called it Scissor Street. It was not far from cafés Flore and Deux Magots, just off Boulevard St. Germain.
The two cafés were popular with the literati, or so the tourists thought. They had been, but by the time we arrived on the scene they were flooded with visitors trying to guess with which of the famous people they were mingling. Meanwhile, Sartre and others had moved on to less well-known haunts such as the café in Rue Ciseaux.
A funny thing happened there one evening. I was quite a good chess player and women chess players were rare in Paris and indeed anywhere else. Naturally, the chess habitués of the café did not know that the “pretty little Irish girl” (their description) had qualified for the U.K.’s women championship as one of the twelve best of the contestants, plus having played for numerous county teams all over England and Ireland. (Of course I didn’t have much competition to get to that—but I certainly had novelty value.)
Consequently, in the Rue Ciseaux café the regular chess players “played down” to me. God help them! I was mopping up opponents in quick time. But, oh dear, how slight was the male confidence in their superiority. Suddenly all the chivalry for the pretty little Irish girl went out of the window. When ordering their food and drink, they joked and demanded “Deux rosbif! [Two roast beefs!]” Soon we were the ‘deux rosbif.’ No longer were we their Irish allies. Time to move on from Paris.
One morning we took the metro to the southern terminus and hitched a lift to the roundabout at Fontainebleau. The Rhône road was black with hitchhikers. Many of them looked as if they had been there for days, thumbing the road by day and retiring to camp out in the woods at night. There was an unbroken stream of traffic going on for the French Riviera and the southeast, but all the vehicles were packed solid with people and luggage. It was the beginning of what is now commonplace. The start of “le camping”—the camping era.
Every car had camping gear on the rooftop. (Soon this would follow the same pattern on the roads from everywhere in the U.K. making for Cornwall.) It was the beginning of the changeover from a two weeks’ family holiday at the seaside in bed and breakfast accommodation, to the litter of families and chattels strewn all over the countryside. Tourism had begun in earnest. Sufficient to say that up to that time there were few, if any, caravan sites in the whole of the U.K. I am in favour of the abolition of all such places. Let those who sold out their birthright for a mess of Birmingham, Pittsburgh, and Clermont Ferrand, stay in those places—forcibly if necessary. And leave the road for those who belong on it!
The throng of hitch-hikers, German, French, Dutch, Belgian, Danish, American, and British, waved and signaled to the long line of passing cars. Some showed placards. We walked on for a couple of kilometers and waited. We hoped for a champagne salesman; many of the cars carried their name and trade on the outside of the vehicle.
Presently we had luck, a car passed all the other hitch-hikers, stopped, and took us to Auxerre. Of course, it all depends on what you call luck! By the time we reached Auxerre it was falling dusk and the town was packed out. Night arrived, and a dark night at that; we left the town to walk south along the Route Nationale. This was not easy walking. There was no surface on the French roads as we know surface. No pavements (naturally), single-line traffic, and the road was broken in many places. Apart from which, the French truck drivers, who ruled the roads, tore along at a furious pace; the last thing they thought of was a pedestrian—except as a huge joke. Nevertheless, the trucks looked beautiful, because they were festooned with little red, green, and white lights like Christmas decorations.
Hitching further and further south, it was becoming perceptibly warmer when we reached Avignon. Avignon was like a place out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The tall, polygonal, loop-holed town walls, the medieval fortifications, the fantastically narrow streets all made it look like a theatrical set.
We met a young journalist, Raymond Duclos, who was from Madagascar. He had read dozens of books about Ireland. His conversation was loaded with quotations from Irish literature and Irish history. One in particular I remember—a quote from Fintan Lalor. Every now and again he would say, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” For him, it was a slog for all the incipient rebellions against colonialism. For many years he wrote to us. Eventually, he returned to Madagascar. Like so many of those wonderful people we met while drifting, we never saw or heard from him again.
An Indian prince, or he might have been a Maharajah, driving a gleaming Mercedes, speaking English with a cultured accent, gave us a lift to Marseilles. We sat and drank wine in a waterfront café and looked out across the bay to the Château de l’Île. A wonderful, remarkable view, which has long since disappeared.
Memories of Marseilles flood back. It is one of the cities for which I have a secret passion. In the days when ports were ports and to be there made anywhere in the world seem accessible. Sizzling heat. Sleeping in the shade on the pavements during the afternoons with the rest of the Marseilles population.
We lived in a small hotel down beside the port, in Luili Street. It was really a brothel—used mainly by cops. We gave it respectability.
The Château d’If was already a tourist attraction, made famous by Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. Above the cell doors were the names of various characters from the novel. Edmund Dantes, Abbe Feria, etc. I wondered who the real convicts had been.
There was a café in the prison yard. When the waiter came for our order, Jim requested bread and water for two. When they brought it, the waiter indicated a man who wanted to talk with us. We invited him over.
He was the advance publicity man for Pinder’s Circus, which was in town. On hearing that Jim was a writer, he said that he would recommend him to his boss, M. Spiessert, for a job. HIS job. He was quitting.
We joined the circus entourage and travelled with them for a while along the Côte d’Azur, as far as Fréjus. We took part in all of the town processions. The first one, in Marseilles, was spectacular. Like a Cecil B. DeMille movie. I sat on a float with ten Indian women as we drove around the city. The Indian girls each had a leopard on a chain attached to their wrists. I merely sat, sans leopard, in petrified silence, while pretending not to be petrified at all. At midnight, our procession ended by travelling down the whole length of the Canebière. It was a truly amazing sight.
Lining either side of the boulevard were all the African soldiers from the French Foreign Legion—the Headquarters was in Marseilles. They were about nine feet tall and carried flaming torches to light the street. It is a wonder that the city did not disappear in a ball of fire. It was just sensational.
The next day there was a big recruiting meeting up at the Legion Headquarters, on a hill above the city. The procession in which we had taken part was to advertise it! We went to the meeting but did not enlist. The following morning we headed out along the coast road. As we passed through the market we saw someone bowing and waving and smiling at us. It was our Indian prince of the Mercedes, now speaking in perfect French—selling carpets.
We drifted through the beautiful fishing villages of the Mediterranean, Le Lavandou, Cassis, La Cavalière, playing boules, sipping bouillabaisse, drinking pastis, and sleeping out on the lovely beaches. All now unrecognisable, engulfed by tower blocks, campsites, motels. Full marks for destruction. We were making for Cannes, hoping for mail at the Post Office. There we settled into a little hotel, Le Chanticleer, beside the church of that name. Here the circus caught up with us. I knew they had arrived when I walked out of our room one morning into the narrow alleyway. I was confronted by a huge lion, roaring its head off. Fortunately, it was behind bars.
But we were not destined to move on with our circus friends. A telegram from Harrap’s told us that publication day for Underworld was looming near. This meant that we would get the remainder of the advance money. It seemed the moment to turn in our tracks and start back. We took a train to Nice and hitched across the Alps for Grenoble and Lyons, to head north.
One night we fetched up in Ivry, a small village where we tried to find a room. There was a distinct anti-British bias. Some incident from the war, we surmised. No one would give or sell us anything. No coffee, no wine, no cigarettes, no food, no room.
At each place, they said the same thing.
“Anglais, hein? Non, pas de chambre. Complet.”
At our last attempt, we managed to explain that we were Irish, and the old woman looked us over.
“Irlandais…” she said dubiously. Then she had an inspiration.
“Vous connaissez la chanson, ‘Long Way to Tipperairee,’” she demanded of me.
“Oui, madame,” I said. She pushed her face almost into mine.
“Alors, chantez!” she ordered. So I sang ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ on the doorstep of her house in Ivry. She beamed and said, “Mais oui. Une vraie Irlandaise.” And she led the way inside.
The next morning we headed for Boulogne, Folkestone, London, the Lake District, and the wagon. We picked up the mail. The major item was that Harrap’s had sent us the cheque, Underworld was published, the first edition had already sold out and a second edition was planned.
Just right for a welcome back to England.
It was the early fifties and things in the publishing world were changing. Jim was taking stock of what he wanted to do literary-wise. During the years that we had been together, he had written many top-rate short stories, many well-paid feature articles, and nine books. But gradually the radio work was taking over, broadcasts of short stories, talks about vagabondage, the road in general, documentary features for radio such as Lorry Harbour with Denis Mitchell and another about the East End of London with R.D. Smith. There had been a break into television following the interview with Valentine Dyall at the Festival of Britain. TV series were spreading everywhere. The number of publishers was decreasing. The shape, the size and the contents of books were changing fast. The paperback market was growing. Short stories in newspapers—one of our main sources of income—were almost nil, as were short-story magazines.
Short-story slots were now on the radio, not in newspapers. Vagabond gossip about the road wasn’t a feature article anymore; it was a TV interview. Racy anecdotes about the characters you met on the road? That wasn’t a vagabond book; it was a radio series and so on. What to do? Decision time.
So there we were, back in the Lake District, considering our future. It will be no surprise to anyone when I say that we did what we had always done in such circumstances: run away.
Within days, we were back on the road, hitching south for France again. Marcel Duhamel, when we met him in Paris, had implored us to visit with him in Antibes. “Soon,” he had said. This was soon!
Once again we were making for the Riviera; this time we decided to take the Route Napoléon through the Alps calling at Sisteron and Digne and so on. We also visited a small village called Lurs. The weather was heavenly, blazing hot days and beautiful soft balmy nights. Most of the time we slept out. After leaving Digne we decided to hitch through the night and get to Cannes in the early hours of the morning.
Somewhere during the day, we were stopped by the police, only to have our passports checked. This was all normal. Tourism had barely been heard of, there were few vehicles on the road, so the village cops, being bored to death, naturally stopped any strangers they sighted, just for a chat. Jim had had a letter from BBC Manchester about a program he was to do later in the year inside his passport, knowing that sometime he was bound to see it and remember. The cops, seeing the envelope with the BBC logo printed on it, were naturally curious and duly impressed.
We hitched all day and on into the night and made it into Cannes about four in the morning. The Mediterranean coast looked beautiful. There was a deathly hush at that hour and we sat on a seat overlooking the sea. A soft warm night, not a breath of wind, not a sound save the clonk, clonk of the fishing boats, and the occasional chiming of a church clock. Over all hung the heavy lemon scent from the sea, which folk think was only a bit of poetic writing from Homer; but years ago, before pollution took over, it pervaded the morning air.
When the town began to stir, we went to the rail station and caught a little train along to Antibes. We arrived at Marcel’s house at about eight o’clock. How had we got there so early, he wanted to know. Well, we’d hitched through the Alps, hadn’t we? Lurs, Digne, Cannes, etc.
Antibes was just a small fishing place with a few luxury villas scattered about and a few luxury yachts in the harbor. Unrecognisable with what it is like today. It was also a haven for writers and artists from Paris on vacation. Our main rendezvous was a small nondescript shack of a café on the beach where everyone congregated in the evenings. One evening, we met a man from Southampton. A Cornishman, Josh Billings. He was captaining a yacht from San Remo around the Mediterranean. As the owner was not there, he invited us aboard to meet some of his mates.
They had wine. Very good wine. I remember dancing the Cornish Floral dance with Billings. In the brilliant full moon of the Med. We danced up and down the deserted streets of Antibes, and in spite of—or because of—the myriad bottles of wine, never put a foot wrong.
Adapted from There Is Only One Road and It Goes Everywhere by Kathleen Phelan, published by Feral House.