AS GYPSIES WANDER
being an account of life with the Gypsies
in England, Provence, Spain,
Turkey & North Africa
JULIETTE DE BAIRACLI LEVY
FABER & FABER LIMITED
24 Russell Square
First published in mcmliii
by Faber and Faber Limited
24 Russell Square London W.C.I.
Printed in Great Britain by
Latimer Trend & Co Ltd Plymouth
NISSIM AND EFFRAIM
who were killed in the Second World War
how you too loved the Gypsy life
“the wind which bloweth on the heath”
Through Nature, I shall rove with Love my Guide,
As Gypsies wander, where they do not know.
We are the Lords of the Universe, of fields, fruits, crops, forests, mountains, of the rivers and springs, of the stars and all the elements. Having learned early to suffer, we suffer not at all. We sleep as calmly and easily on the ground as on the softest bed, and our hard skin is an impregnable armour against the assaults of the air….Fame, honour, and ambition have no power over us, we’re therefore free from that base servitude in which most of the great are illustrious and unhappy, nay rather, very slaves. But our places are the tents we carry with us….we dwell in these tents, busied in the present, and without overmuch care for the future.
This book has been written from a true knowledge of Gypsy character and life. At an early age the Gypsies accepted me as one of themselves, and my life with them has thus been similar to that of Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy who:
One Summer morn forsook
His friends, and went to learn the Gypsy lore
And roam’d the world with that wild brotherhood,
And came, as most men deem’d, to little good.
I left a northern university and sought out the Gypsies to learn all possible concerning their herbal medical lore: and in short time I came to love deeply and admire my strange teachers.
One reason which has been responsible for the Gypsies’ ready acceptance of me as one of themselves, is that I look like a Gypsy. Very often when walking through a town or down country roads, a sack o herbs upon my back and one of my big Afghanistan dogs at my side, I have heard the whispering of people: “Gypsy! Gypsy!” But it is not only the gawje (non-gypsies) who have spoken thus. In every country that I have visited the Gypsies themselves greeted me joyfully: “Romany! Romany!”
Fellow travellers who know something of the Gypsy predilection for pegging all possible from the gawje, have said to me with some cynicism, that I have fared well with the Gypsies, because travelling the world as I have done, in ragged clothing and usually with empty pockets, the Gypsies have nothing to take from me, and accept me as one of their own class. Such a statement lacks pure truth. Firstly it is told of the Romanies that they possess a God-given privilege to beg, especially clothing. For when the two Mary Saints, Mary Salome and Mary Jacoby, fled Palestine after the crucifixion of Christ, Sara, the dark Gypsy servant of Mary Jacoby, when the party arrived at a Provence fishing village in the wild Rhone delta, begged clothing and food from the fishermen and their wives, for the two saints. (It is said also of Sara -the saint Sara of the Gypsies-that the boat left the shores of Palestine without the Gypsy; but Mary Jacoby, hearing the lamentations of her loyal servant, cast her cloak upon the sea, and the Gypsy rode upon it to the boat.) My own personal experience of Romanies and their mongering (begging), is that they have given to me far more than they have taken, in all my years with them: things both material and immaterial.
Some years ago I read a nonfiction book concerning a group of French peasant farmers who rejected modernity and its false advantages, and continued to cultivate their lands on the old principles: without heavy tractors, without chemical fertilizers, and above all without poison sprays for pest control. As such are also my own principles of farming, I was entirely in sympathy with those peasants: and yet, as I reached the end of the book I found myself near to disliking them. The reason: the author in his over-enthusiasm had made them all too perfect and too faultless, both in their work and their lives. Remembering that book I vowed to discipline my pen and not to commit the same error in my Gypsy writings. But how could I paint the Gypsies with the traditional black hearts when I found almost all fo them to possess golden ones! Perhaps too often in my book I have made contrast of Romany ways with gawje ways, and usually more favourable to the Gypsy. But then again, I love the Gypsy way of life, the freedom, the irresponsibility, the constant adventure of living close to nature: how can I help but praise!
I am not the first writer to admire the Gypsy race. In England alone, where I commenced my Gypsy life, there are many-past and present. John Ruskin, himself a naturalist and advocate of the simple life, wrote of the Romanies: “Honestest, harmlessest of the human race-under whose roof but a Gypsy’s may a wandering madonna rest in peace.”
W.H. Hudson loved them for their lawlessness, and praised their superb health and close kniship with Nature. The two truest of the peasant poets, Robert Burns and John Clare, both loved the Gypsies and consorted with them. One of Robbie Burns’s beloved Jeanies was a half-tinker, half-Gypsy woman, who when the tree buds commenced to swell in the spring, yearned for the sweet green places, and unable to stay her hunger, not even for the love of Burns, would leave the towns and their tavern life. John Clare went away with a party of Gypsies and lived with them for three months, during which thime they taught him to play the fiddle. He became enamoured of a Gypsy girl, and wrote a love poem to his nut-brown Gypsy maid.
The characters in this book of Gypsy wandering are all real people. Only I have made some of my characters speak the words of other Gypsies who have had no place in this book, because to have included all would have caused its length to make it impossible of publication. Likewise on a few occasions I have introduced into chapters memorable Gypsy incidents where they do not rightly belong, having occurred at another time and in another place. I have done so because I do not intend to write more than this one Gypsy book (I am a herbalist and a field worker by profession, not a writer), and it is my wish to include all speech and incidents which for me were important or most pleasing.
This book is not intended to be autobiographical. There are quite lengthy periods which have no mention in its pages because I was not with the Gypsies. For instance my travels and work in Mexico, the United States, Israel, and the Tunisian island of Djerba.
In conclusion I want to remark on my use of Gypsy dialect in the text. I appreciate that for many readers dialect words are purely an irritation: but the words came into the writing as I worked upon my manuscript, and thus I feel that it would be wrongful to the true music of the book to alter them, replacing with the English. Therefore I advise those persons who object to dialect to ignore the Romany words when they meet with them, for they are unimportant. Also they are confined almost entirely to the chapters on English Gypsies. And I promise the others-who I think will be in the majority-who accept dialect in the text, that if my book interests them sufficiently to read through to the end, they will in the course of their reading acquire a small vocabulary of common Gypsy speech: for the same words have constant repetition in the book’s pages. As Romany is purely a spoken and never a written language, the spelling is always a problem. Of the small number of Gypsies who have learnt to write, almost each one spells differently the Romany words. I myself in the text will have spelt the same word differently, it is of no importance.
I have asked the publishers to include a selection of my Gypsy photographs in my book. Gypsies are usually difficult subjects for the camera. They are suspicious of photography and thus appear surly of expression or assume very artificial poses. These Gypsy photographs have managed to capture the true spirit of Gypsy life because the Romanies posed for me as my friends. The photography is in nowise expert. I think technically perfect photography would be out of mood with the primitive nature of – As Gypsies Wander.
The frontispiece was photographed by David Fox of Salisbury Art School; the head study of Fuego, my Afghan hound, by J. Damourette, Casablanca, and the photograph where I am with the Sacro Monte gypsies, by Antonio Zafra, Granada. The cover Illustration is by a friend, Denis Harvey, a stone-mason who has travelled the roads of England with his own horse and van, and thus knows well the true Romany life apparent in this illustration.
JULIETTE DE BAIRACLI LEVY