Month: July 2014

Pages 140-145

As Gypsies Wander - 073 img

I kept my promise to White Will and went to visit him and his family on Banstead Downs to hear from him how he had fared in the Epsom police courts. The visit was memorable because of the death of a Gypsy child and the preparations being made for her funeral. At the time of my going to Banstead, the winter had increased in severity and it was very cold. Yet, nevertheless, a Gypsy day, filled with colour and mystery. An immense crimson front sun i na sky grey and cobwebby as soiled net curtains. The dowland silvered with melted rime and swirling mists thereover, lying low and indicating that they would later form a blanket of fog. Everywhere there was robin song.

As I walked the downs in my search for the Gypsies – I trailing them only by the marks left by the caravan wheels: difficult search on the frost-hardened ground – I observed how thoroughly the Surrey Council had performed their anti-Gypsy work. On every likely stretch of good grazing for the Romany horses were to be found the eye-offending notices prohibiting the staying of the caravans. Good evidence of the persecution of a minority by the powerful.

Finally I found the encampment upon a high ridge of the downs; a row of caravans silhouetted against the grey-green winter sky. When I approached closer I found also, on a lower level of the ground, and extraordinary fire, formed of a great towering pile of brushwood, it being as tall and pyramidal as a Red Indian wigwam, with a host of the scarlet fire-horses assembled there, prancing and roaring admist the towering wood as they devoured it. It was the greatest Gypsy fire that my eyes had looked upon. Also, I found one of the greatest Gypsy gatherings, for I counted over fifty dark forms, mostly squatting upon the ground, gathered in a wide ring around the fire.

Charlotte Smith came forward to welcome me, she declaring: “Feyther’s so glad about the letter you wrote they gravvers. Us is all awaitin’ to rocker wi’ you. Feyther’s not about just now, ‘e’s out wi’ the trolli (flat-cart, Surrey Gypsy dialect), lookin’ fer you. ‘Ow did you find us now?”

I followed the weddin’ wheels an’ hoped they’d be your folks’.”

At my use of the Surrey Gypsy word for the van-tracks, which Charlotte’s family had taught me, the young woman laughed merrily, then she pressed her hand over her lips to end her mirth.

“We all be togeno (sad) thisaday. A chauvi’s dead in ‘orspital, an’ the men are sittin’ up o’ nights fer the comfertin’ of ‘er togeno bitta mulo (sad little spirit/ghost).”

The words of Charlotte explained the extraordinary fire and the large number of Gypsies gathered there: the men so sombre in black and grey, all without their bright coloured dicklos, resembled a circle of crows resting on the ground amidst the swirling mists. The firelight painted with rose glow the grim brown faces, and as Charlotte led me towards the gathering, I recognized some of the Cooper men who had shared the wild ride with me on Levi Cooper’s flat-cart many years ago. They also knew me, and called out in welcome, and them made a place for me in their circle.

The Gypsies told me about the death of a five-year-old girl child whose lungs had been affected by the winter damp and frosts. They had not thought to use the cow-dung treatment with which White Will had had such complete success on his own child. White Will had not been available at the commencement of the illness, nor had there been cows in any of the near fields. The parents had been unable to get the inflammation away from the child’s lungs, and had sought hospital treatment for her, and she had died. I thought to myself that the modern hospital, with its over-heated rooms and closed windows and chlorinated drinking water and over-use of chemical drugs, was not the place for any creature from the open-air life. I found the same with the animals of the woods and meadows: in the veterinary places they languished and faded. But I said nothing of my thoughts. I merely spoke agreement with the several men who gave opinion that: “Mebbe the chauvi be better done by to be safe and warm in hev (Heaven, also grave), wot wi’ the winter almost upon us an’ the world to-day bein’ sech a kawlo place for us needis (Gypsies, Surrey dialect).”

“Mebbe, my friends,” I agreed, “mebbe.”

I studied well the group of adult Gypsies and their crowd of children. Winter was upon the downs, it had come some weeks ago, bringing its hereditary fogs and frosts and baneful-looking moon. The winter solstice itself was soon approaching. The Gypsies had been ordered to leave their Banstead site; they knew not where to go. Their clothing was true raggle-taggle, their faces pallid and their bodies over-lean from lack of nourishment; their wagons miserable living-places, mostly carts converted into caravans by their own carpentry: canvas roofs were prevalent. Only the horses appeared well fed, for the kawlo rat (black blood Gypsies) know well how to nurse a horse on herbs and rough grazing. And yet the group held fiercely to their traditional life; the great fire that they had created seemed to be a defiance of the modern world’s disapproving and condemnatory attitude to the Romany life. “Free as the smoke of our fires,” say the Gypsies of themselves.

And yet, how true of that gathering of Gypsies, at that bitter hour for them, were words of Matthew Arnold: sensitive, often prophetic, writer, creator of the immortal Scholar Gypsy poem, who in another poem spoke thus of the Romany people:

 

The dingy tents are pitch’d; the fires

Give to the wind their wavering spires,

In dark knots crowd round the wild flame

Their children, as when first they came;

They see their shackled beasts again

Move, browsing, up the grey wall’d lane.

Signs are not wanting which might rase

The ghost in them of former days –

Signs are not wanting if they would;

Suggestive to disquietitude.

 

They must live still – and yet God knows,

Crowded and keen the country grows;

It seems as if in their decay,

The law grew stronger every day.

And they will rub through if they can,

Tomorrow on the shelf-same plan,

Till death arrive to supersede,

For them, vicissitude and need.

“My beloved Gypsies,” I lamented in silence. “My own nomad people. What is to become of you all in these unnatural times? ‘Crowded and keen’ indeed the country grows. I shall think of you all when I am away in freer lands, and shall worry and sorrow over you. When I learn of times of long rain and snow upon England, I shall lament, remembering your raggle-taggle clothes and your wretched wagons.”

My drear thoughts were ended by the appearance of White Will, coming scurrying mouse-like across the field. His face was less white than usual, due doubless to the beer which he had been taking in quantity ever since his victory in the police court: a long-lasting celebration of the triumph of justice, and also the money that he had saved thereby.

After he had spoken his thanks to me, White Will told me further concerning the vigil and funeral for the dead Gypsy child. A three-night’s vigil was being kept, and this was the last night, and the body itself was due from the hospital a goodly distance away. Hourly they were expecting its arrival. The Gypsies had made the coffin themselves from oakwood, the wood well seasoned by their tears in the making. The child’s few toys were already within the coffin – true to gypsy tradition, to prevent haunting. A ragged doll – rags wound around painted clothes pegs – a rattle made from a tin half-filled with pebbles, and a little wooden horse that her father had carved for her from hollywood.

The hospital were sending the corpse to stay with the Gypsies until the burial. A place by the fire had already been allotted. The men were to burn candles – sheltered with glass jars – upon the coffin throughout the night, and were to chanter (sing) to the little mulo (spirit, ghost) for the comforting of it. Bill Smith, White Will’s son, could play well upon the fiddle, and such an instrument had been sent for from a neighbour Gypsy camp. Song and music were kindly things for the mulo as it flitted around its former body, preparatory for the long flight to hev (heaven). Hev of the Gypsies! Duvelesko bauro poov, God’s great field. Flower-strewn and watered by many springs and brooks of sweet waters, no doubt, and filled with hares and rabbits for their dogs, and sweet bite for their horses, and not one policeman or interfering government official allowed anywhere, and always a great sun by day and a full moon by night….

When on other occasions I have been lamenting the present-day treatment of the English Romanies, gawje sympathizers have asked me of what suggestions I would make for improving Gypsy living. “What do they want of us – your Romanies?” And I have replied thus: “Firstly to tbe left alone, not interfered with. They are a race as secretive as the hares and the golden plover, they want to be left alone to wander in the quiet places as yet not ruined by man and his improving and anti-Nature works. They want to have their gatherings at horse-fairs and sucklike without the police attendant upon them (remember their treatment for the Epsom Derby day, a traditional event for the English Romanies – their caravans and tents now banned permanently from the race-course). They want to be allowed to rest their caravans by the roadside for a week or more if they wish, not to be harried and hounded everywhere with a one-to three-day limit: they want peace from the police hounds and the packs of council officials who come in their wake. Finally they want some sympathetic feeling from the gawje. Because the Gypsy is an outlaw and has retained his freedom in a world shackled by the chains of commerce and so-called progress, often the gawje is subconsciously envious of the brown people ever travelling “over the hills an’ far away”, and thus resentful, and sees only the dark side of Gypsy character, not the golden. Of the Gypsies the gawjes say: “thieves and vagabonds’: they see not the clever brown hands so skilled in field work and handicrafts, nor the big and generous hearts which succour all who are distressed and needy – as many a tramp, deserting soldier, fleeing prisoner, will give evidence: they see not the most high education in the book of Nature, how skilfully the Romanies read it’s pages, knowing the stars, the wild flowers, and creatures, the telling of the weather, the culling and eating of wild produce, all of which is almost lost to the modern settled gawje: they see not the music in the Gypsies, in their singing voices and dancing feet and their playing of instruments – be it only a Romany child beating upon a tin drum or piping on a flute made from a reed: the gawje sees only darkness around the Gypsy, and yet in truth there is golden brightness, more brightness than in most races, although the quality often has become hidden and tarnished like old gold, and needs the rub of kindness and sympathy to shine forth again.

Pages 134-140

White Will and his wife began to talk about jallin’ the drom again, for the police were now hounding the Gypsies, they sniffing like hunting dogs in the vicinity of the Gypsy encampment; and the Smiths dared not ‘atch (encamp) longer time. The friendly veterinary surgeon who had given the Gypsies the paper certifying the lameness of their horse and stating that the animal should be rested for two-three days, was himself ill, and the paper had not been renewed.

The Smiths did not want to leave me and I was made miserable at the thought of their going. Their good company and generous fires had helped me wonderously: one week having been eaten out of the darkness of the long-stretching winter through the coming of the Romanies.

There came, the last night, the family jallin’ to another tanaw early on the morrow morning as soon as the frost melted off the road. To mark the night – and to lessen the sadness of us all- White Will built a special fire. This fire featured a motor tyre, an article much used by the Gypsies when they find a discarded one by the wayside or on a refuse dump. When drunken – or angry- they have been known to take new tyres off cars and burn them. To make such a fire a stout branch of wood is rubbed with hedgehog or other grease, and kindled, the flaming end then being placed upon the rubber, which burns with a fierce heat, the wood being kept in contact with the tyre. The rubber in White Will’s fire gave out an intense heat which was very welcome – the night being one of heavy rain – even though unpleasant black fumes also were poured forth. But the fire-loving Gypsies built two yogs: the rubber tyre, whereby to dry our rain-sodden clothes, and a great one of crack, for our pleasure. We moved from one to the other.

Big Bill was away at a gadderken, drinking to forget the troubles of the present-day Gypsy life in England, and Mayday was not much with us around the fire, for she was washing clothes in a big petrol drum of boiling water which she had heated over the rubber-tyre fire. Mrs. Smith grumbled at Mayday for wanting to be clothes-washing in the late night instead of keeping proper hours like other Gypsy girls. But Mayday had little heed for her mother-in-law’s scolding, and she sang sweet as a throstle as she worked, slapping at the clothes in the foamy water.

She heightened her singing with peals of laughter, her merriment caused by the finding of little fish boiled in the river water which she was using, and at the thought of the plan that she had told us, of putting the boiled fish into the sleeves of Bill’s shirts after the drying to surprise him. For accompaniment to her singing and her laughing, Mayday had that night the music of the rushing river swollen with rain, the calling of the owls in the near coppice and, above all, the roar and crackle of the two fires. In the light of the fire the young woman’s hair showed like a russet hood framing the laughing face – her locks red-brown as were turned the beech-leaves in the copse since the frosts had come.

Inspired by the comfort of the fires, we kept up unceasing talk deep into the night. We watched the motor tyre burn quite away, and then White Will piled even higher his second fire of wood until the heat of it brought forth the damp from our rain-wet clothes in pearly steam. That night the Smith family gave me many bundles of pegs and a bunch of the artificial flowers of Bill’s making. Charlotte picked out for me a lucky peg -bokalo-fidas- which I was to keep and inscribe with the Will Smith family name. She also offered to give me her handsome fairday apron -fairus jorjofa- an article of black sateen, with deep pockets and an abundance of embroidery in bright silks, making a design of twining flowers and hearts. She told me that the fairus aprons were made and sold by German Jews at a shop in Houndsditch; many Surrey Gypsies visited there or purchases of the aprons and also for the tall-crowned black beaver hats that the older Surrey Gypsy women like to wear. But I would not deprive Charlotte of her apron.

Then, when our last night was almost talked away, I compelled myself from the fire, from its roaring scarlet passion, and set my face towards the icy-breath fields. I promised to be early back at the camping place for the morning departure, the Gypsies saying that they would be travelling as soon as the ice had thawed off the roads.

A storm of sleet met me across the river fields, for the rain was freezing as it fell I was very sad, knowing that after to- morrow morning, if I should pass that way, there would be no singing Gypsy voices to beckon and welcome me, nor Gypsy fire. The bitter sleet soddening the fields, seemed to me to be symbolic of my melancholy.

I was early at Young Street to bless my friends down the tober (road). The vans were already off the grass, and stood at the roadside awaiting my coming. When the Gypsies saw me in the distance the commenced their vans forward: I could hear the crack of the whips as the horses were sent into movement. White Will led the caravan party. He walked beside his chestnut galloway which was pulling the green and yellow vardo of his family, now a separate unit from the new family of Bill and Mayday.

As White Will’s van drew close to me, I could observe a brace of rabbits swinging on a hook above the door hatch, and hear the chorusing of the bantams within their boxes beneath the vehicle. Also the Gypsy dogs barked while they frisked around the horses, as Romany dogs will do at the commencement of a peeromus (moving away, a-roaming). Eliza was at the door with Minny who held to her heart the doll that I had given her. Loowey and Eileen were there also.

White Will waved a paper at me. The familiar white paper of a police summons. “They lelled (caught) we arter all,” he cried fiercely. They waited like ‘eron birds do wait by the paani (water) fer the matchi (fish) to grow tolu (fat), afore they eat ‘em. So they gravvers (police) did let us stay on the many divaws (days) to make up a big fine, they keepin’ careful watch on we that we does not scram (run away) afore they lel us. They came on we early saula (morning) afore the frost was off the drom (road).

“An’ they left their chik (filth) wi’ us, they graverbegs did,” Eliza yelled.

I looked towards the three children at the van door. Their faces were whiter even than usual, and very unsmiling, they fully sharing the trouble of their parents. I myself felt as angry and as miserable as the Gypsies. The family had lived so harmlessly at the roadside, doing no one ill and working with such diligence at their peg-making. Now all their laboriously-acquired earnings were to be taken from them in the police courts: it was unbearable. “Think you the fine’ll be much?” I asked the Gypsies.

“Ten bars (pounds) mebbe, or more. We’ve ‘atched ‘ere a great lot of divaws, ain’t we?” White Will answered.

“Avaali, you have. But your gry was long.”

“Gry’s still long.”

“Can’t you get the vet to certify so?”

“Naw. Vet’s in sick-bed. ‘E’s a good much (man), ‘e is, but most o’ they kind don’t like we Romanies, an’ they’ll not be signin’ no papers agenst the gravvers, not they!”

“Listen, bor (brother),” I told him. “I’ll write to the police court. I know horses and I’ve a small amount of authority in the veterinary world. Very small, because I’m only a herbalist, but it may help you. I’ll write to-day, I promise you. They I’ll come over to Banstead Down where you’ll be hatchin’ awhile and I’ll find out from you how you prospered in the police court. I’ll help you, I promise, if I possibly can. And if they fine you too heavily, I’ll write them again.”

We touched hands then to seal the promise, Gypsy fashion, palm flat upon palm. And I said farewell to my friends, my good friends. Loowey presented me with a necklace of new conkers that she had gathered and made, and I put the glowing thing around my neck.

The horseman, Joe, followed behind his father’s vardo. He rode bare-back on the grey mare and led the lame black galloway. He had on his khaki officer’s jacket and a bright-patterned dicklo. He looked very dapper, a Gypsy man in miniature, gallant and showy.

“Good-bye, dear Joe, good-bye.”

The lad stirred his horses into a trot, even the lame one, and waved gaily at me with thin pale hand.

In the rear came Big BIll, striding on foot beside his van, with the brilliant Mayday at the door, her face smiling and vital in the yellow morning light. Lil’ Bill was in her arms, he with his little hat of sparrow feathers and waving a peg in a fat white fist. Mary and Charlotte were with her, and Georgey also came to the open window, his small eyes looking very red and smutched, as if he had been weeping.

Bill halted the horse so that the young women could speak with me, and I asked Charlotte concerning Georgey, and she said that his favourite ferret had diet in his arms a few hours ago. She added: “Do you know what Georgy did for ‘is pug (ferret)? E buried ‘im in a bitta hev (small grave, or heaven), along o’ the dick (river)!”

“How sweet!” I exclaimed. Then I called to the boy who had come to the door. “I’m very sorry, Georgy, about your pug, was it the yaller one that you liked so well?”

“Aye, the yaller,” the thin voice piped.

I gave the sad chal (lad) the reddest of the apples in my basket.

“D’you know what our Georgy did also fer ‘is pug?” Charlotte continued.

“Naw?”

“E said a mong (prayer).”

“Oh, Georgey, did you really! What did you say then?”

The boy’s mouth was full of apple. His voice squeaked at me.

“I sed fer ‘im:

“Ashes ter askes,
An’ dust ter dust,
If Gawd doesna’ ‘ave you,
Some un’ must.”

 

I could well picture the small thin white lad at the riverside in the cold dawn, burying his ferret and saying his pathetic prayer. It was but one incident typical of the White Will family. It was not strange that I loved them.

“Well we’s really orf now,” Big Bill declared. “Don’t you be goin’, an’ forgettin’ we.”

“I’ll not forget you, my friends. An’ I’ll write to the police court for you against that summons. Kushto bact miri prals (good luck, my comrades).

“Kushto backt miri pen (sister).” Each Gypsy called as the van moved away.

The cavalcade of horse-drawn caravans travelled onwards, down the wide road diamond-glistening with the frost of the early; morning the Gypsies, angered and bitter on account of the police summons, not having waited for any thawing. A cock and hen robin descended upon the abandoned camping place and sought crumbs around the blackened circle of earth where the fires had burnt and the family had taken their meals of white bread and potatoes.

I duly wrote the Epsom police courts on behalf of White Will, and he was fined but ten shillings in place of the ten pounds that he had expected to pay. Concerning the Surrey police and the Gypsies, in fairness I must say that although the hounding of the Gypsies is fiendish, they do meet consideration and justice from the Epsom police-court magistrate when they have been driven into attendance there. I have further experience of this. Friends of White Will, two brothers of the Vincent family of horse-traders, were unjustly summoned for being by a caravan on prohibited land, but which was not their own van. I wrote on their behalf to the Epsom police court. The result was that the Clerk to the Court replied to me that the Gypsies appeared t0 have a favorable defense against their summons, and that if I would speak with the brothers and ensure that they appeared in court, their defense would be heard. I persuaded the men to appear; and they were acquitted.