Eiza Cooper – Wild Flowers’ Vendor
Eiza Cooper, Vendor of Wild Flowers, hawked all the saleable wild flowers of Surrey, the tem wesh (wooded country) of the Gypsies. The passing of the seasons was recorded in the blossoms in her large square Romany baskets of plaited and woven willow.
Commencing her flower-selling when the white of early spring snow swathed the woods – with the flowers of the snow, the snowdrops – she went into mid-spring with the blooms which take their hue from sunbeams or from the sun itself; the sulphur of wild daffodils and primroses, the ochre of cowslips – so honey-breathed; the beaten cooper of marsh marigolds. Then later the twilight blue of wood hyacinths and violets, finally ending with the flower which imitates the tint of the sun’s dying, in that lovely sun afterglow of midsummer, the briar rose, most fragrant and fair of the Surrey’s wild blossoms.
Very knowledgeable was old Eiza as to the nurseries of the flower wildings – rosalis Romanis (Gypsy flowers), and of the medicinal herbs. It was Eiza’s family who taught me to make a fragrant tea from dried primrose and cowslip flowers, with wood-sorrel leaves for added tartness. A tea popular with Surrey and Kent Romanies and looking and tasting like elfin honey.
The Gypsy flower-seller was hawking bunched briar roses when first I met with her, the sweet frangrance from her laden baskets coming to me across Leatherhead High Street. It was a good sight for my eyes, the figure of the old Gypsy; for since my return from Mexico few Romanies were to be met with in the Leatherhead district.
In Mexico I had been studying Indian herbal medicine, not Gypsy, and in an unpopulated part of that continent, Baja California, where there was no work or trading to attract the Romanies. I had met with one solitary Gypsy lace seller only. But in Mexico it is known that the Gypsies are free to lead their traditional nomad life, and they are happy and healthy.
But the Surrey Council seemed to be knowledgably and systematically taking all of the traditional camping places of the Gypsies. Well I remember on my return hastening to the river site where I had taken leave of Emily and Rachel and Joe, and many of the dark Coopers, and finding there no caravans, instead an object new and -apparently- permanent: a tall white post and board banning all Gypsies. It was a curse upon the place! The freedom of the river fields was thereby all ended. The notice stated that a fine of five pounds, and further daily fines, would be imposed upon the owners of the caravans and suchlike which stayed within some great distance of the notice.
And there had been others. I searched; and in all the habitual Romany camping places were the big notices blighting the green countryside. Such things were a slap in the face for all Gypsies – and for me also, because it hurt my friends. The notices, on that first meeting with them, had brought me near to weeping with anger – and sadness. I had pulled up clots of earth and moistened them in the river then flung them at the imperious boards, an action senseless as that of the angry child who strikes the portion of earth that is imagined to be the cause of the fall. I would have set fire to the boards if such action could have brought the Gypsies back to my river fields again; but I knew too well that it would prove of no permanent avail. The hideous, insulting notices, so jarring to the eyes against the greenness and undulating rhythm of river and field, were but a symbol of man’s increasing regimentation and power over the earth. Modern man has become like the dullard unromantic gardner who will not tolerate one wilding from the fields to grow in free rhythmical beauty in the area of land under his ruling. The Romanies are the wild flowers of the world: they always have been. Their seeds blow free in “the wind on the heath”, they are not planted in neat, controlled drills.
I knew further, concerning the Surrey Council notice-boards, that the Gypsies were likewise aware that the firing of them or the hurling of them into the river would never restore to them their well-loved camping places, or they would all have gone into wreckage before the new paint had known many days of life. I was told later by a farmer who knew of my friendship with the Gypsies that the notices had been erected soon after some Epsom Gypsies had been convicted of firing several ricks of a farmer who had refused to let them fill their water-cans at his tap.
I crossed the High Street and bought briar roses from Eiza. They were in neat bunches, their stems wound with pale green wool, with which Eiza and her daughters usually bunched their wild-flower gatherings and their herbs. The rose stems were trimmed of their thorns – “To make ‘em fit company for the vastis (hands) of a rauni (lady).”
I spoke long with Eiza Cooper at that first meeting. She accompanied me down a side street, “away from they starin’ gravvers (police) wi’ their bawlo-nocks (pig noses) a-pokin’ inter ewery person’s business”. Fro she possessed in full measure her people’s hatred of their hereditary enemy – the soldiers, who in the days of the coming of the Romanies, “the Egyptians”, to England, had used them to hunt them down and take them away, shackled like animals, for hanging without trial: the very fact of being an Egyptian was sufficient reason for immediate execution.
She took the wild leather kipsi (basket)(carrying slings) from off her shoulders, and rested her baskets of roses upon the pavement in the shade of a tree. And I leant my back against the tree, and she faced me with her hands upon her hips in easy position, and in the summer twilight we stood and gossiped at our leisure. From that time there commenced a friendship between us which was to bring many pleasant further meetings.
That morning I think that I would have followed Eiza anywhere, so much was the pied piper power that she had over me. It was once again for me to be bewitched by the eternal magic of the Gypsies, which is so well and truly told in the ancient Somersetshire ballad of unknown author – “The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies”.
She’s taken off her high-heeled shoes
All made of Spanish Leather, O.
She would in the street with her bare bare feet
All out in the wind and weather, O.
What makes you leave your house and land?
Your golden treasure to forgo?
What makes you leave your new-wedded lord,
To follow the raggle-taggle Gypsies, O.
What care I for my house and land?
What care I for my treasure, O?
What care I for my new-wedded lord, –
I’m off with the raggle-taggle Gypsies, O!
Doubtless many persons would have seen Eiza Cooper merely as an old crone, but to my eyes she was both picturesque and beautiful. Her age must have been apast seventy years, yet her form stayed as straight and as upright as one of her own Gypsy yoosering-koshts (broom sticks) made out of the symmetrical fir-boughs. She was tall and spare, and her head crowned with dignity her long neck. He gait was particularly rhythmical and graceful; as with the Red Indian people, the Gypsies generally tread the earth well, for they are earthy people. Her face was one of the keenest that I have beheld amongst Gypsy women, the skin being of the general Romany type, brown and horny as tree-bark, and as etched with furrowed lines, all put there by the weathering of the elements -wind, rain, sun and frost, and also by her laughter and her anger. But the skin was no more the typical copper colour of glowing larch or fir-bark, the red blood no longer coursed there and it was become the grey-brown tone of the oak. Her high cheek-bones were prominent knobs below her grey-blue eyes, which were unusually alert and penetrative for an old woman. Her long, bony nose was powerful and semitic, a rocklike crag above the upturned chin which was most notable for its stubble of yellowing wiry hairs, many of them so coarse that they were almost bristles, and gave her countenance to added bizarrerie and power.
Her garb was distinctly Romany. On her piled greying hair, once of tawny hue, rested a tall hat of night-blue beaver. Brass hoop ear-rings pushed through the grey dishevelled locks, and her further adornment was a satin dicklo (neck scarf) of the same sober blue hue as was the hat. Her long coat was of fallow stuff and very raggedy; and below that hung a sedge-green skirt, reaching almost to her ankles. Beneath the coat Eiza wore, further, and apron of black alpaca, which she showed to me on inquiry. The apron was of interest because it was distinguished by the possession of a Romany mongamus pootsi, the habitual begging pocket of the Gypsies, and the first of its kind that I had seen. A big roomy inside frontal pocket, with an outer opening and into which swift brown hands could slip a multitude of things. Such things as: the silver pieces of dukeriben (fortune-telling), or a life kanni (hen) or dead shoshi (rabbit) or kamengri (hare), a clutch of yoris (eggs), or many pounds of pobbles (apples) and quantities of ezzaws (clothes) – so Eiza told me.
The Gypsy’s slippers were the most neglected part of her otherwise neat attire, being very broken and worn and mended with string. Caked deep in clay they were, from the Surrey downland, where at sunrise that morning she had pulled the dew-drenched briar roses to fill her baskets. Eiza’s stockings were also noteworthy, for despite the young summer warmth, she had on three pairs, the uppermost pair showed fawn, the underlying ones a bright azure, and the fine were black: rents above the heel revealing this. Oh Eiza Cooper from where did you get your bright blue stockings! Where they heritage from some ancient Gypsy ancestor? -for only a Gypsy could spot stockings of suck kingfisher plumage gaudiness. As I did not want to hurt the old woman’s sensitive feelings by comment upon her torn and also unusual stockings, I shall never know the story of the blue pair.
Eiza Cooper was skilled in dukkeriben, and there in the sunlit street we discussed together the reading of her hand and mine. She saw well a ring of dark-natured people who had gained possession of some of my herbal work and were grievously exploiting that work to enrich themselves. One of them she saw as yellow-haired as the stamens of the wild roses that I held in my hand: and that was true. There and then the Gypsy took my hand into the grasp of her own, and with strong horny thumb rubbed fiercely the area of the palm where she said she saw the enemy – the kawlo looromengroes (black robbers), as she called them. Never before had I met with the Gypsy procedure of the rubbing-out of enemies, and never before had I heard uttered such a passionate and formidable Romany savloholoben (curse). Fire seemed to spark about the bristles on the old woman’s chin, and bubbles of saliva formed at the corners of her grim lips. The are of my hand where the Gypsy had rubbed-out the enemies and continued to burn and throb in manner most strange for a long time afterwards.
I must record that at the time of my meeting with Eiza Cooper the looromengroes possessed much power to bring harm to herbal work. But since the Gypsy’s cursing, that power had waned with remarkable speed and eventually became withered and lifeless in company with the briar roses which had come to me from Eiza’s baskets.
I enjoyed many further meetings with Eiza Cooper, and came to know also her daughter Caroline. She was the youngest of Eiza’s ten children and was in the early thirties. A hansome, buxom young woman, dark-haired and poppy-cheeked, very mirthful and warm-hearted, differing greatly from her tawny-coloured, shrewd, deep mother.
Caroline was always gusty with laughter, the winds of laughter being as constant to her as the warm breathings of the South which accompany the coming of the Summer solstice. On meeting with me during her kawking of wild flowers – or pegs, when the flower season were ended- I could be sure of enjoying a storm of laughter from her. I had but to make some remark concerning the kawlo-bali rom (dark-haired husband), whom she was for ever seeking, wanting to get herself wedded, and she would at once lower her baskets to the pavement, place her hands upon her wide hips, and rock with laughter, so that the coral beads which she always wore circling her plump dark neck, would give a jingling musical accompaniment to her mirth as they rose and fell around the pulsating throat. The eyes of the young woman too, flashed with merriment, and became more beautiful – which meant very beautiful – for she possessed fine eyes, dark and smouldering, of lovely shape, a true Romany feature.
Her sable hair was also very Romany, both in its dark abundance and great length. She wore her hair either in two thick plaits, one lying over each powerful shoulder, or as a flat coil around her head, in patter of much similitude to the broad handles of the hawking baskets. Her hair was often flower-decorated, a posy of cowslips behind one ear, a spray of wild roses, a narrow crown twisted from a larchen bough when bearing the tufted rosy flowers, or in the autumn a trail of honeysuckle, with its blood-bright berries, bound around the black plaits, or worn circling the brow and matching well her necklace of coral.
On one cold spring noon of driving rain, I invited Eiza and her daughter to take coffee and doughnuts with me in a Leatherhead cafe. It needed much persuasion from me to get the Gypsies to enter the cafe, the drawing back and declaring that: “The likes o’ we be not kammered (welcomed) in such places.” They excused the snobbery of their fellow men with the observation that no doubt their big hawking baskets got in the way of the tables, and their clothes generally being so “raggity” they troubled the eyes of the gawje (non-Gypsy).
“Nonsense,” I said. But nevertheless the Gypsies’ words troubled me as they followed me into the cafe, for I could not bear that through fault of mine they might meet with some hurt to their feelings. Eiza’s and Caroline’s words had recalled to my mind the fact that there are many cafes and inns in England, especially in the southern counties, which display the hateful and shameful notice: “No Gypsies served here.” Much of a kin to the Jew-hating notices of former Nazi Germany.
In the cafe I stacked the baskets of the Gypsies into a corner, and then ordered our food. We were served promptly. All the tension then left my friends and they became very gay, and proved happy guests at my table. Eiza drank her coffee from her saucer, and when she saw that I was not enjoying the drink myself, she poured my cup into her saucer also and soon emptied it. She declared that my coffee tasted sweeter than her first saucerful, because my lips had made it so. Caroline’s gusts of laughter caused the cloth to rise and fall upon the table. I thought that the old woman’s remark was a suggestion that she wanted another cup of coffee, but I could not get her to take more.
One thing I did observe very surely about my guests; they were hungry people. I know from experience how hungry people eat and swallow their food. In my travels I have met with over-many hungry Gypsies and tramps. Present-day life becomes increasingly difficult for the raggle-taggle tribes. Their markets of handmade smallwares are vanishing, being flooded by the cheap, shoddy, mass-produced articles of the factory. Clothes-pegs, baskets, copper-ware, artificial flowers, the factory produces all. Likewise people have become too materialistic to take pleasure in, and to purchase, the wild flowers and berries from the Gypsies and too hygienic and apprehensive to buy their mushrooms and watercress, and finally too scientific to delight in their art of fortune-telling. The Gypsies, furthermore, have lost much of their wild produce which formerly added bulk and health to the food in their cooking-pots. The modern farmer ruthlessly eliminates the healthful weeds from his fields, considering them to be harmful to his crops and cattle, whereas, in reality -and the Gypsies know so- they are preventive against insect ravages and are mostly highly medicinal and nutritive when eaten. The machine harvesting deprives the Gypsies of their harvest gleanings, and with more and more acreage being placed under plough, free grazing for their horses becomes very scarce. “Times be ‘ard for we Romanies, ‘tis ‘ungry years upon we now, ‘ard an’ ‘ungry.”
Eiza brought our meal to an end with the happy observation that “The old cobbler be showin’ ‘is mooi (face) in the hev (sky). For her the sun was always the cobbler, though she could not explain her word beyond the fact that: “We needis (Gypsies, Surrey Romany word) allaways do call the sun the cobbler aroun’ these parts. P’raps because the cobbler must be early at ‘is work, and when the old cobbler shows ‘is red mooi in the hev we too must git sharp to work. The wildly blossims an’ yerbs must be picked in early ‘ours to ‘ave ‘em in proper freshniss, every Romany knows about that. The cresses too do be coolest an’ sweetest then; an’ the ‘edge berries.”
She then straightened her scarf, pulled her hat down upon her brow, and moved from the table. I knew the reason for her haste and I fully shared the same sentiment. She was a Gypsy, and outside, one of her gods, the sun -the cobbler- was calling to her, she would not stay in the airless cafe when the sun was painting the rain-wet road with its golden light. Ture Gypsy that she was, she had become more hungry for the sunlight than for further food. Eiza expressed herself by saying:
“It’s time I’m orf on a visit to the cobbler, ‘e’s not been seen around ‘ere for the past week or more. Me toes be itchin’ in me boots, they’s wantin’ the road agen.”
“I’m with you,” I agreed. “We’ll visit the cobbler quick before he goes and shuts himself away agen. Me toes be itchin’ too.”
Eiza wiped the crumbs off the table with the skirt of her coat and then the Gypsies took up their hawking baskets and we went out into a golden afternoon.
Many times Eiza Cooper and Caroline asked me to visit them at their home in the countryside near Dorking. I promised to do so on the Whitsuntide Sunday when neither they nor I would be working.
I took Rosemary, a friend, with me to Cooper dwelling place; one whom I believed would be acceptable to the Gypsies. When the Second World War had commenced, Rosemary had abandoned her training as a ballet dancer for forestry employment, which had taken her to the Forest of Dean, where I had first met her. Later we had been together again when she was employed on similar work in Somerset. We had also done field work together in company with the Gypsies, in the New Forest. Rose could speak some Romany and she shared my admiration for the Gypsies. I believed that the Coopers would have pleasure in her visit, for apart from other interesting qualities of character, she was fair of face. The Gypsies do love beauty in all forms, whether it be in a shawl, a flower, a horse, a dog, a camping place, or fellow being.