British journalist Joseph Woby is one of the best long-form writers around, as he risks his life to tell stories from the road.
I met Joseph Woby by accident. In 2010, I was on my way from Memphis to Jackson on an early-morning Amtrak service when I overheard a British journalist telling an ageing American rocker that he was on his way to Mexico to cover the drug war from Ciudad Juarez and Culiacan. The journalist, Woby, had come from Chicago and was heading south along the Mississippi on what he described as “a self-guided blues tour.” I was on my way to Mexico to cover the drug war as well, but he was talking to the ageing rocker and we didn’t really get a chance to compare notes. He disembarked in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and went off in search of Robert Johnson’s grave.
Two days later, the universe sent us both a message. I had been in Jackson with a far-Left journalist who would later go on to play a significant role in the Occupy movement. Woby had received a pool cue to the face in a bar-room brawl and been shot at while fishing on someone’s private property. By chance, we found ourselves on the same train once again, and this time we hit it off over Coronas as we sat in the Amtrak observation car and crossed the bayou on the way into New Orleans. (He went on to write one of the best dispatches from Juarez I’ve ever read and spent a night fearing for his life in a toilet cubicle in order to file it.) Before last year, when we caught up in Pamplona to run with the bulls, the last time we had seen each other was when we’d been drinking Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street. We’d lost each other then, but we’ve been in contact ever since.
Woby found the grave he had been looking for, by the way. He almost found his own, too. Between Mississippi and Navarre, at the end of 2012, Joe was walking home from a bar in Whitechapel, London, when he tried to help a woman who was being harassed and was set upon with a hammer for his troubles.
He woke up more than a month later with a face made of metal and a resolve made of steel.
“My daughters — I have two — were hoping that the bump on my head would bring me to my senses,” Woby told Crikey, “meaning that I’d retire from the scene with a comically pronounced limp or something.” That didn’t happen.
“The attack was proof that shit happens,” he said. “But if you know it’s going to happen, you take precautions to soften its impact. We don’t fear what we see coming.”
In Woby’s world, there’s always something coming. Not only did he run the bulls with me — in what turned out to be one of the bloodiest fiestas in some time — he then continued on to the United States and set to work on a book project about the Great Recession and the freight-hopping hobos who have once again taken to the rails in a time of great economic tumult.
The forthcoming book, Twilight of the Hobo, was born out of Woby’s 2011 article for London’s Sunday Times, “The railway children”, in which he hopped freight trains across the country and visited the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. The piece remains one of the most impressive (and criminally under-read) articles on the Great Recession and the ways in which it affected ordinary people’s lives:
“It’s early evening before a train — a mixed bag — appears for my first solo hop. It’s crawling, but there’s life in it yet. My steel needs flexing. Bo has warned me that catching ‘on the fly’ as the quickest way to acquire a new nickname — Stumpy, Pegleg, ‘the former’ …”
Dread mention of “the former Joseph Woby”. It will mean that a vital voice has finally, after multiple attempts, been extinguished. This vitality is evident in his prose and his opinions, both of which have become all the more potent since he first started hopping freight trains three years ago. Between them, his trips — in 2011 and last year — have helped to derail a lot of what he says he “once held dear about the United States, perhaps not as truths, but as digestible lies”.
“The 10,000 or so miles I’ve spent on freight trains have put me straight on a lot of things,” he said. “I fear my stomach has been irreversibly turned.”
“The book started life as a misty-eyed goodbye to the train tramp, one of the founding fathers of Mythical America, and I was little more than a tribute act recording the passing of a legend. I’m sure there was a market for a Gonzo-lite yarn of that nature, and I could have written it if I’d stayed at home making choo-choo noises with Woody Guthrie on repeat. But I don’t like staying at home, even when I have one.
“And the fact is the hobo is far from a heritage figure, even if the Great Recession has returned many Americans to a dustbowl existence,” he said. “I have shared box cars, gondolas and grainers with preppers, anarchists, drug mules, Occupiers, Gulf War vets, eco-protesters and illegal immigrant workers” — his emphasis, as particular and perfect as ever — “hundreds of people whose stories, though rarely heard, belong on the front pages of today’s newspapers, their voices uniting in testimony to a single truth: anonymity is the only freedom available in Fortress America.”
“It’s hard to make ’the American dream’ stick in a country that is effectively turning into a vast prison exercise yard,” he said.
Freedom and threats to it — private prisons, in particular — occupy him a great deal.
“The hobo lives free until he’s caught. Then he’s a federal offender. Serious business. And a serious industry, too. I got interested in the private prison service in light of the Tories’ boner for sexing up incarceration,” he said. “I thought it might be instructive to look at the work of the CAA, America’s leading ‘supplier of correctional facilities’ to federal, state and local government, whose record makes Her Majesty’s Prisons look like palaces of rehabilitation.”
“But rehabilitation isn’t what the US slammer is all about. ‘Recidivism’ is the magic word, and the motto is ‘come back soon and bring your friends’. Multimillion-dollar expansionist lobby groups push for ever more punitive drug and immigration legislation. The ’legalisation’ of pot in Washington and Colorado was nothing but a smokescreen for persistent users to be sent down for worse — if associated — crimes.”
Asked why British — or Australian — readers should be interested in this, Woby was merciless.
“Readers, regardless of nationality, should be interested in these stories,” he said. “This shit is happening on a daily basis the world over. We’ve lost our local innocence. We’re all in it to skin it.”
Woby’s Twitter feed, like the man himself, is a hypermanic maelstrom of observation and aphorism, outrage and compassion, all delivered in perfectly polished prose.
“In the beginning, which for me was about four years ago, I used Twitter as the smartass ventriloquist’s puppet among social media platforms that it was,” he said. “I cottoned on to its other uses — in the field, as it were — much later.”
He contrasted it to Facebook, which he describes as “a feeding frenzy. Any prey will do.”
“People on Facebook talk a lot about ‘community’ or ‘family’ (a word that, for me, is free from gooey associations),” he said. “Community is about minding someone’s kids, walking their dog, visiting them in hospital, not sitting in your underpants, drinking piss-poor coffee and posting a look-at-me meme based on a misattributed, misspelt quote.”
“Twitter’s something else, though. I’ve made more useful contacts, and more friends, through Twitter than in any newsroom. And I’ve spent a decade working for English broadsheets.”
Joseph Woby’s #FF:
Richard Grant (@richardgrant4): The author of God’s Middle Finger, Ghost Riders and Crazy River. He makes sentences that words are just happy to be a part of.
*More of Woby’s thoughts on riding the rails on the Crikey website …On taking to the rails
“My obsession with the hobo is as old as I am, and I’ve chalked up a few years. Same goes for the open road. I was a runaway child, constantly kicking against the stationary. Had I been born American, I’d have hit the rails before graduation to formula milk.
‘The road’ teaches you that no section of it is more or less travelled. Our every footfall is wonderfully distinct. The great journey is internal, anyway, and we seek out landscapes that chime with our findings. That offer shelter where exposure hurts.
“But William Cobbett, the 19th-century journalist, whose Rural Rides was an early influence on my thinking, had a point that bears mantric repetition: the great outdoors is lost on someone who can’t see the wonder of their own doorstep. It brings to mind the backpacker embarked on a mission to find himself, as though the self is a physical entity that goes on ahead.
“If I found myself in such a circumstance, say coming the other way down a floating market in Bangkok, I wouldn’t tell the guy my real name.”