Drunken John

My first encounter with the town's "Drunken John" was on the first night when we moved into our flat on the Close. He was hanging around outside on the corner of old Icknield Way near the railway bridge. Apparently he'd lost his cat - or his dog, or something. Foolishly we stopped and listened to his garbled story. The dog never existed; he forgot about his dog-ploy in ten seconds. Esther apparently "looks beautiful", although too bad for John, because as he stated himself she "belongs" to me (quote unquote). He was wearing jeans I think, and a crusty old jacket under which he clutched onto a clear plastic bottle without any label - just water he claimed. And on top he wore an equally crusty old hat with a creased and broken peak which he repeatedly took off and put back on.

He introduced himself as "John", but apparently he's a well-known personality because a passer-by who was witness to the difficulty we had trying to politely tell John to go away informed us that the kids call him "Drunken John". As it happened she was a parent to one of my pupils at school so it was a happy coincidence bumping into her and having a ready-made conversation starter - even if the conversation starter cost us twenty minutes in the freezing cold with a crazy man of dubious personal hygiene.

The following day at school:

"Hi Oliver, I spoke to your mum last night."
"Yeah, she told me at dinner - you were being harassed by drunken John."
A student asks incredulously "You've met drunken John?" and then all of a sudden, "Hey, sir knows drunken John."
"Yes, I've had the misfortune of bumping into drunken John - I met him last night with my girlfriend."

Apparently John is well-known personality in this corner of Hertfordshire. He used to get in trouble hanging around outside the local Morrisons supermarket. In fact, as we were talking to him, every passing car made him nervously check if it was a police car. So I'm not sure just how appreciative all of the Letchworth locals are towards the aimiable town drunkard. Back in school one of my year 11's sagely informed me:

"The thing to do when you meet drunken John is take his hat."
"Yeah, take his hat. He gets really angry and comes running after you. Jack and I did that one week it was really funny.""Just for laughs hey?"
"Yeah exactly, it's really funny."

Seeing John, occasionally under the railway bridge and along Station Way I've never tried my students' advice. Although I can't help feeling that there's something quaintly Anglo-Saxon about "harmless" old drunken John. Under the entry for "Town drunk" Wikipedia authoritatively informs us:

"The town drunk typically dwells in a small enough town that he is the only conspicuous alcoholic. Larger cities may have more than one, but this term appears to come from around the 17th century; in the stereotype, when a city grows large enough to house a sufficient mass of town drunks, the area where they congregate becomes known as Skid Row."

Fortunately Letchworth is sans Skid Row. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed English town drunks don't congregate because to my knowledge "Skid Rows" are a purely American phenomenon. In any case Wikipedia continues to inform us that in fiction "the town drunk may serve as a semi-comic proxy for the Wise Old Man. He may disrupt public meetings, either for comic effect, or by dispensing what proves to be wisdom in a garbled and comic form."

So perhaps far from taking ol' drunken John's hat - I should be taking his advice.

"If you need anything, or anyone gives you any trouble, just come and see John. I've forgotten you're name but I know that you've got a heart of gold."
(To Esther): "He's got a heart of gold... And you're beautiful. But even though he's ugly he's got a heart of gold this man."


Image courtesy: Tom Häkkinen


Anonymous said...

When I was a very young boy, I was intensely afraid of 'Juicy Lucy' - the local homeless woman around Baulkham Hills in the north-west of Sydney in the late 1980s.

Tom Hakkinen said...

Yeah, I'm not even sure if John is homeless - I've never seen him dossing about anywhere. Just heckling people at busy-ish street corners.

Anyway, what you should've done as any good English toe-rag worth his salt will have known - is take her hat! (Or any other personal effect which might induce her to labouriously try and chase you for it back).

Anonymous said...

Meehat, meehat...