Pages 128-134

On my first evening that I spent with the Smiths they commenced lessons for me in Surrey Gypsy dialect, and many were the curious words that I took down from them to compare later with the standard Romany words and endeavour to trace their origin: a task which fascinated me, I loving foreign languages and words, my father having spoken nine languages, my mother knowing eight. It was a strange speech that the Smith family spoke; much intermixed with mumper patter. I loved my lessons in the firelight, and all of the hours that I spent thus, evening after evening, were notable and memorable ones.

I soon found that White Will was a philosopher, with a powerful sense of justice and a mind rich in natural poetry. It was the poetical element in his character which made him delight in descriptions of the bizarre Gypsies whom I had met, and also the foreign scenes. Places were of especial interest because he possessed the Gypsy travel yearning, and he would beseech me for more and more descriptions, and retelling of many of them. His favorites being: how the spring came in earth-bound rainbows of flowers over the desert and mountains of Mexico and North Africa; the glitter and beauty of Turkey’s Bosphorus and Sea of Marmora; moonlight on Israel’s lake of Galilee; and the way that the sun sets over the coast of Spain and Portugal; a blizzard over Newfoundland.

“Thats rikeno (beautiful).” he’d sigh, “aye, ‘tis wondrous rikeno. You tells things rikeno. ‘Tis the wish o’ we that you travel along o’ we fer awhile. We’d provide fer you an’ you could give our chauvi (children) lessons in readin’ and writin’. ‘Tis our wish.”

I had always then to tell Will that I had little time left in England, because by the mid-spring of the coming year I would be over sea again, heading the coming time for the Orient. But it was a true wish of mine to travel with them one day. That promise seemed to comfort and satisfy him.

For his part Will told to me many picturesque things. Especially accounts of the principal Romany celebrations, horse-races, weddings, births, and the ceremony of deaths. The celebrations seemed to consist mostly of wild drinking and dancing, and from what the Gypsy told me, the drunken frenzy of the men at such times seemed to resemble the sexual madness of camels and elephants – the “must”, when these animals would run amok and nothing could hold or stay them. There were also descriptions of the gentler dancing of the young unmarried men and women at hop-picking times: when wooden boards would be spread over the grass, and by the light of lantern, fire and moon, and to the accompaniment of the mouth-organ and accordion -and sometimes a fiddle- there would be dancing through the night. Not only the Gypsy jigs and step dances, but Romanies dancing with gawjes, performing the old folk dances of the English countryside.

The Smiths also told me much medical lore of the Gypsies, the most memorable account being that of their curing of the seventh child Loowey, when she was dying of pneumonia. The gawje doctor had told the parents that he could do no more for the child and that they must be prepared to lose her during the night. White Will and his fellow Gypsies then decided to take over, and to use the Romany cure of the plastering of the lungs with warm cow dung. That treatment necessitated the covering of the lung areas with warm dung, both front and back of the body, renewing the plaster as soon as it lost its warmth and thus its drawing powers. To have the plaster at its very best the dung should be obtained fresh from the cow. Thus through one afternoon and a whole night the Gypsies chased a herd of cows around the fields in the obtaining of warm dung from them. And when the doctor arrived on the next day, the child, whom he had expected to find dying or dead, was sitting upright on her mother’s lap supping bread and milk. The treatment was then continued in modified form, the dung being obtained in a more simple way from the cow pats in the fields, and heated in tin cans over the fire. The child made a speedy and full recovery from pneumonia. The doctor carefully took down into his note-book all details of the cure – “for future use”, he declared.

Eliza’s sharp tongue was contemptuous when it came to that part of the narritive. She declared: “Could you now, jest could you , see the gawje allowin’ cow stuff to be plastered on their fine bodies. Why, they won’t even dirty their vastis (hands) wi’ poov (earth) wi’out a-pullin a big mooi (face). What do tooti (you) think, now?” she asked of me.

“I don’t really think that I could see the gawje having such treatment,” I agreed. “But I’ve some gawje friends who are as close to the earth as any Romany, and who honour the natural remedies, especially herbs. And many ordinary gawjes do use urine often enough for relief of chilblains.”

“Aye, but not dunnock (cow) water! Their own.”

“Aye,” I agreed further, smiling then to myself at her passion against all except her own kind.

 

The Smith family did not sit in idleness around their fires in the evening. There was usually peg-making in progress. And it is as peg-makers that I always picture the family: the pale willow pegs and the pale peg-makers.

However, the Smiths did not confine themselves to willow although it predominated in their work; they used also a variety of other woods, hazel, dogwood, ash. They told me that often enough they had skirmishes with the game keepers when cutting their peg sticks in the copses. (Yoggles was their dialect name for keepers.) The girls, too, had been in such fights, the elegant Charlotte being reputed very skilled with her fists, the family saying of her that she was a tatcho cor-mush’ (true boxer-man). The Smiths worked much on the pegging plan of the Coopers and King families whom I had watched at work three years ago in the same river fields. They cut their peeled sticks into even lengths of six inches, then they banded them with tin heated and hammered in the fire. Their hammer they called pogermesti. They hammer-beat the tin upon the tinning block to make the tiny holes for the insertion of the fine nails they called krafnis. After the nailing and splitting of the pegs with the peg knife -koshti chiv- a horn-handled instrument with a metal end resembling in shape the cutter of an old-fashioned tin-opener – the pegs then became the finished articles ready for sale and took the name of fidas. The fidas are then bundled into lots of six, called peg-dolls – and indeed they look like wooden dolls – and are sold to the shops, generally at fourpence a bundle, and at higher cost at the house doors, because hawking is a wearisome business, and severe on shoe leather. In the packing of the peg bundles into the big square hawking baskets with their leather shoulder slings, if one bundle should fall to the ground the family declare in unison, “that one’s sold:: an old Romany superstition.

Often and often I watched the young women go forth on their peg-hawking, the blessing of their parents upon them and their wares. The beautiful Mayday carried her babe at her side, slung through the traditional Romany baby carrier, the roper, a broad sling cut from old carpet lengths, and work across the body and reaching to one hip, the legs of the babe then being placed through the sling, and a shawl worn over all to keep the child in position. When Mayday first showed me her roper , she impulsively pulled it from her body and placed it on me and wished for me soon a child – and, moreover, a Gypsy child. The family teased her, but she was very serious, her face flushed and her eyes shining, she very well returning my deep affection for her.

Frequently I would meet with the peg-sellers in Leatherhead village. I would go then into the shops which they had visited, and there demand pegs, only hand-made Gypsy ones, in order to help forth the trading of my friends. Sometimes the kipsies (baskets) of the peg-sellers would be emptied, all the wares having been sold. Then loaves of white bread would be stacked there instead, and highly coloured cakes, and apples too, purchased with the peg money. Sometimes Lil’ Bill slept in one of the peg baskets.

Mayday’s babe, Lil’ Bill, was a most peculiar infant, with his massive head and ancient-looking face, so fat and white, his general appearance putting me in mind of the small pig in Alice in Wonderland. For the babe had none of his mother’s beauty as yet, her glowing colour had not entered his skin and he possessed the tallow whiteness of the Will Smith brood. The child was passionately loved by his mother. Sweet as a lark her voice would cry to him: “Oh my Lil’ Bill, Lil’ Bill, my wonderful chauvi (child).” And her brilliant lips would kiss the white face. “Ain’t ‘e a lil’ prince now; ain’t the rikeno kralis (beautiful king)?” Answering her own question, she would promptly inform her son triumphantly: “They sez you is like a kralis. They all sez you is.” “They” were the nodding trees and grasses around her caravan, for the talked often with such things being a very true child of Nature, who drank daily from her Mother Earth’s vital breast.

Mayday had run away from her own peopel with scarcely into her fourteenth year. She had left to wed with White Will’s eldest son, choosing a broomstick marriage. Her babe, Lil’ Bill, had been born to her in her sixteenth year, and born dramatically in a Kent strawberry field whilst she had been at work there. Strong, brown, capable, Gypsy hands, stained with strawberry juice, had helped Mayday’s first child into the light of the sun. Mayday panted always for fresh air, and never could abide the door of her vardo to be closed, and it stood wide to the elements even when the snow piled upon her floor.

“Me feyther’s people were tan (tent) people,” she explained. “I’d die if I wuz to be shut in a kair (house) wiv doors an’ winders shutterd as I see the gawjes alivin’. Oh I’m Gawd thankful that I be Gypsy, an’ Lil’ Bill is thankful too.” Mayday was a beautiful charcater.

Long shall I carry in my eyes the picture of her as I saw her one autumn day when the sun was newly risen over the dew-drenched fields. She stood at her vardo door singing to the shining morning. She had garlanded herself, her nut-brown brow and neck, with twines of the blood-red byrony berries from the hedgerows. Lil’ Bill was in her arms, also garlanded, but with the silver tinsel of the flowers of traveler’s joy, for fear that he should harm himself with the eating of byrony fruits. On the babe’s pale head was a diminutive grey hat woven of sparrow feathers; in one hand a clothes-peg.

The pegs dominated the lives of White Will and his family. They were the articles that they made best. White Will told me that when he married Eliza they were very poor, little more than tan-dwellers; they decided to invest in children. To have many children, and bring them up as peg-makers; and that they had accomplished.

The family realized that pegs are a seasonable article of trade, and that the gawje housewife generally dries her clothes indoors when winter winds blow heavy with rain. But when I met the Smiths late in November, the were yet at their peg-making, though often enough the young women returned with the greater portion of their wares unsold.

The son Bill also employed his artistic hands iwt making of artificial flowers of wood, which is another typical Gypsy product. With the same willow boughs from which the pegs were cut, Bill used a peculiar scraping instrument of similar appearance to an apple-corer. That instrument has a center hole lined with sharp metal, and through which are passed the wands of willow. The scraper was then drawn down the wand, causing long streamers of wood to appear and to remain attached to the central layers of the wood; the streamers hanging and curling picturesquely in similar form to the petals of chrysanthemums. Those wood shavings flowers were then dipped into pans of bright vegetable dyes, made from such plant things as bracken leaves, sloe berries, apple, oak and ash bark, knapweed heads and water-lily roots. Sprigs of green box leaves or broom twigs were then wired around the long stems of the wooden flowers. Bill told me that he could also make paper roses, the finished product, when waxed, giving life to the paper roses for years. George Nicholson, by the fireside in the Yorkshire dales, had demonstrated to me the making of paper flowers, roses, and lilies. The flowers-to-be, first cut into long strips of crepe paper, a warm knife or pen-knife blade drawn over the cut petals causing them to curl over in very natural form. The base of the paper blooms then fixed into wire, and the work completed by dipping the flowers into a basin of melted wax candles, coloured the appropriate flower hues with dye. Often the baskets of pale pegs would be made colourful by the addition of bunches of the gaudy artificial flowers laying atop of the peg-bundles.

To illustrate the dominance of the clothes-peg in the life of the English Gypsies, White Will liked to tell a story of a Gypsy woman being found dead in a ditch.

“Ow did they that found the body know that the jumel (married woman) wuz a Romany?” he asked of me. “Guess now.”

I guessed. “Because her face was weather-tanned?”

“Kek! (no!)”

“Her legs were mottled down the front from wood-fires scorching?”

“Kek!”

“Her teeth were stained?”

“Kek!”

I could think of no further distinguishing marks for a dead female Gypsy body, other than beauty of shape and wealth of hair. So I said: “I give up then. Tell me the answer, Gypsy man!”

White Will shouted with childlike laughter and pushed his cap to the back of his head and waved his pegging knife at me. “They knew she be a Romany ‘cos she’d a clos’-peg in ‘er pootsie (pocket), see. Chooro jumel (poor woman), if she’d nothing else she got a fidas wiv ‘er.”

“Be it tatcho (true) story?” I asked.

“Naw (no), ‘tis but a Romany riddle.”

“Tis very clever, Will,” I praised, “and a little toogeno (sad).”

“Fivoben (life) be toogeno, ‘cept on fairus divvaws (fair days).” the Gypsy philosophized.

I sat in silence then and listened to the merriment of the fire being fed with flung handfuls of peg-shavings into great rubicund fire-horses. As the white sea-horses of the ocean fling themselves against the black shore rocks, so the crimson steeds of the Gypsy fires do bite at the dark body of the stew-pot hung above them, I thought, as I regarded the wild red flames.

Pegs! Pegs! Pegs! As I watched the nourishing of the fire with the fidas shavings, I realized how closely peg-making was linked with the Gypsy fires. Each helped each other: nothing was wasted, true to the necessitous nature of Gypsy life.

Pages 118-127

CHAPTER VII

 

White Will And Family – Peg-Makers

 

I first met with William Smith (or White Will or Mouse-as his fellow Gypsies do call him) one November morning in Surrey. The Leatherhead river fields were then winding-sheeted with vapour and the River Mole sinister with flood-water, the land and the water peopled with mournful crying seagulls feeding upon the wrack. The scene was as grey as my mood, for as I walked the fields I was contrasting the dreariness with the flaming autumn colours which I had known in Mexico. I was further asking myself – as I so often asked in the northern winters – if I would ever again see the sun and feel its warmth. Oh, great lover  the sun! As the sea draws the moon, so the sun pulls the Gypsy people.

As I was mourning the death of the sun, it was with deep emotion that I beheld glowing through the mists the crimson shape of a wayside fire. Like a theatre sun, painted there upon the grey backcloth. After the sun the Gypsies worship fire, and it was running feet that took me towards where burnt the fire. At first the naked black bodies of tree in a copse obscured my view, but soon I beheld clearly not only the flaming pyre of branches, but a row of vans grouped near there. The people of the fires -the Gypsies- were back again. Despite the prominent display of the Surrey Council notices, forbidding the staying of caravans anywhere along the river, there were gathered a half-dozen wagons, and they within hand-reach of one of the ugly offending boards. A host of horses and some thirty Gypsies made up the company. It was the largest Romany gathering that I had met in Surrey, other than on Derby day, since the tribal meeting of the Cooper, King, and Lee families by the same river more than three years ago.

Once more I found all the usual activity and excitement of a Romany arrival. A tumult of Gypsy sounds thronged my ears, and was produced by the people themselves as they split wood for the fire and carried clattering and splashing pails of water up the bankside from the river. Also their horses, grouped around the camp, added their individual sound, and the bantams and fighting cocks flocking everywhere.

The scene for me had now been changed from grey to gold; and all the countryside seemed to share in the excitement. The bushes rustled their yellow foliage and the blackened autumn grasses sang the song of the grass -chantering, as the Gypsies say. The robins, companions of the Gypsy camp, seekers of crumbs and pickers of the fat in the frying-pan, piped shrilly in the bushes, and brought hedge sparrows thronging and a pair of wrens.  The river water, wind-rippled in the buckets, and splashed mirthfully and whistled in the deep cooking pots hung over the ranting fire. How truthfully wrote the great Spanish genius Cervantes, when he told that the countryside welcomes the arrival of the wandering Gypsy hordes: that the very mountains rumble their gladness in their deep caverns, the trees clap their broad arms, and the little field flowers breathe more sweetly, because the people of Nature are amongst them again.

As I watched the Gypsies settling into camp I wondered much at their having encamped themselves in a place forbidden to them by the Surrey Council. I decided that they most likely had obtained official permit, and then I firmly  put the matter from my mind.

I approached the Gypsies and told them what a joyous thing it was for me to meet with Romany wagons again in Young Street after their people had been so long away from the place.

“Can you hear everything saying welcome, welcome?” I asked. “The trees and the bushes and grasses, the wild birds, and even, the River Mole, all singing welcome.”

“We can hear,” the Gypsies agreed. “An’ we be gladsome to be back in the old places.”

“You’ve brought summer back for me with your fire,” I added. “I bless you and your bauro yog (great fire).”

I could speak that way with the Gypsies, but to no people else, except perhaps the Arabs – who have much of the Gypsy spirit among them: masters of horses, sons of the sun and the wind. One thin little man of middle age, wearing a cloth cap and an indigo dicklo (neck scarf), said that he heard the glad-someness of the earth most times when he pitched camp. The speaker was White Will; romantic-minded, whimsical, William Smith, who in the days ahead was to become a close friend of mine.

Immediately then White Will called his family forth to meet me. Across the sodden gleaming winter grass they came, having the appearance of a bantam flock, they so many an sprightly and their clothes so motley. The family numbered twelve when the wife of the eldest son, Bill, was included -Mayday, and their babe- Lil’ Bill.

The rest of the party consisted of two families of Kentish Gypsies. All of the Gypsies were returning from work in the hop fields and the fruit orchards. On learning of the work on which they had been employed, I decided that the essential land work had probably excepted them temporarily from the Surrey Council camping ban. I did not like to mention the subject to them and I kept my eyes away from sight of the offending notice-boards.

Talking with the Gypsies, I found that they were related to the Coopers and Kings who had been such good friends to me. We were soon deep in conversation, for we had much to tell each other. Laughter travelled over the fields and exhilarated voices: all the former drear atmosphere was banished. But the morning lengthened with unkind swiftness – how the hours of happiness do slip away like petals from poppy flowers – and I had to return to my work. I promised to return in the afternoon and tell the Gypsies much about the foreign Romanichals whom I had known on my travels.

I went direct from the Gypsies to the grocer’s in the village, and there drew out a large accumulation of tea and sugar rations. The assistant laughed at me and asked: “Are the Gypsies back then?” He knew that I had no use myself for the tea or white sugar, not liking them.

“Yes,” I answered. I spoke but the one word, yet I could have recited a long poem on the subject of the wonder of the Gypsies being back in the river fields again. I knew that I would not do much writing work that day. I was too hungry for Gypsy company again and for the power of their fire to drive the Surrey dampness from my limbs.

All the remainder of the morning and up to the mid-noon, when I was to depart for the camping place, my mind was fretted with the thought that the police might have come upon the Gypsies and hounded them on again: and they so wearied from their night of travel from Kent. That I would arrive at Young Street to find only a charred fire circle on the earth, where their camp had been, and little mounds of horse dung, and the ruts of caravan wheels: nothing more. For it had often been that way in my friendships with the Romanies. And often enough shreds of red cloth torn to pieces in anger and flung upon the bushes, to give information that they had been moved by the police. Or a peg left lying upon the earth, a friendship sign from them to me when they had been expecting a visit from me at the time when the police had come upon them. And with the peg, a patrin (road sign) of peg shavings showing which direction their wagons had travelled.

It was therefore happiness for me when I reached the bend in the Dorking Road to see a Gypsy sign which assured me that they were still by the riverside. For there in the distance curled grey-silver fern-fronds of smoke, lifting to the dun winter sky misted with rain. I would not have to carry back home the heavy gift basket that I had packed in such gladness: the very thought caused the basket to feel light-weight upon my arm.

My visit proved timely, for I was surprised by many vardos (caravans) progressing towards me down the road, the tall shapes of them and the strong horses pulling the shafts, all reflected upon the wet shining road being drenched by the falling rain. Only the two wagons which belonged to the White Will family remained on the riverside site, all others were jallin’ the drom (taking the road).

I soon met with the first vardo of the slow-moving, weary seeming company. An olive-green dilapidated vehicle drawn by a massive white mare. Striding by the mare’s side was a burly, unshaven Romany man, wearing a matching green billycock hat and carrying a big driving whip made from polished holly-wood and a great thong of plaited cord. In the rear came a shaggy grizzled-hued lurcher, very long of limb and lean. A young woman stood at the vardo door. She wore only a ragged dress of sun-faded blue cotton, unsuitable for the cold autumn day filled with the north wind laced with hail. Her face was pallid and thin, set in a black nest of tangled hair, but beautiful. Above her, on a hook, swung a wicker cage wherein was a jackdaw.

“Where are you jallin’?” I asked of the Gypsy man, troubled at the sight of his lowering face baneful as the weather, and the angry tread of his clay-caked boots upon the road. He halted his horse. “ ‘Tis they muskerows (police) at we agen,” he told. “They’ve bin to we this arternoon. We all be scrammin’ (running away, Surrey and Kent dialect). Only Will Smith and ‘is childer be stayin’, fer that kawlo gry (black horse) of ‘is be long (lame), an’ ‘e’ll avter ‘atch atime fer it to be righted.”

“I’m very sorry for you, pral (brother),” I said. “Mebbe one day the Romanies will rule this world, and then they’ll have the gavvers (police) moving for a change.” In truth, I could never see the Gypsies wishing to hound anyone, they being too carefree and big-hearted. Ready enough with their curses when their hawked wares are refused, but laughing inside their hearts most often. But I spoke thus to comfort the man in his bitterness.

The Gypsy laughed wildly, thumping at his thighs with his fists muffled in old socks against the raw cold, and with his whip. And the young woman clapped her hands, whereat the jackdaw screamed raucously.

“Mebbe one day,” said the Gypsy. Then his face darkened again. “But look tooti (you), just see ‘ere, they’se given us papers.” And out of a pocket of his ragged jacket he brought a piece of white paper, a document which I knew over well. A police summons bringing the Gypsy to court to humble him and filch his scant earnings, his crime being that he had pitched his caravan on a piece of waste-land to rest his family and his animals. Pathetic earnings of the English Gypsy, garnered from the selling of small hand-made articles, and from arduous piece-work on the land. Piece-work when it is potato gathering or pea, hop and fruit picking can be severe work, especially in the damp English climate.

“We is scrammin”, the Gypsy then repeated. “We’ll put some forty meeaws (miles) behin’ us before we atch agen, an’ we’ll not be wiv in touch of those pesky gavvers for many a year arter.”

“I’m very sorry,” I told again, “please take some pobbles (apples).” And I had him fill his pockets from my basket, while I lifted some up to the woman. I gave them also packets of tea and sugar.

The Gypsy took leave of me then, and whipped his tired horse into movement, and the green caravan travelled onwards into the mists, leaving behind chords of its music, the drone of wheels, clatter of pans, buckets and chains, swinging loose from its body, and the rattle of ill-fitting window-frames and door.

The other vardos came by. Each owner carried a summons. I gave apples and groceries to all of the Gypsies and then stood waving my scarf in farewell as they moved away down the drom (road). Tired and bitter, the men walked at the side of their horses: all dragged their feet, men and horses. And the women in the vans chantered curses upon the gravvers who persecuted them. I learnt later that they had not been able to read the Council notices under which they had camped.

The mists and sheeting rain closed over the last of the vardos, a big crimson-painted vehicle with a little cream donkey running in its rear.

“Good-bye, good-bye, my friends, kushto bact (good luck).” It was always, always, swift and poignant good-byes with the Gypsies, always.

White Will had built a royal fire, the great flame plumes of gold and crimson shimmered and waved and leapt skywards, and strewed scarlet feathers in a wide circle. Around the fire sat the Gypsy parents and their eight children, also daughter-in-law and grandchild. The Romany faces were incarnadined in the fire-glow. Three dogs also warmed themselves there ,a brace of lurchers and one terrier. The horses were close by, four of them, all stump-chained (or-billogo-deep, in Surrey Romany dialect). They were cropping the grass, which despite the chill weather was yet lush and deep close by the hedgerows, no horses having fed there in many years, whereas in former days when the Romanies had camped unmolested, the river and roadside grass stretches of the ancient camping sites had been kept as bitten down as sheep-grazed turf, and the willows, too, all shorn.

I placed my basket at the side of Will’s wife, Eliza, and she soon distributed the apples amongst her children. Quickly she made a place for me at the fireside where the most warmth was to be had. Then we commenced to rocker (talk), unceasingly, to and fro, our conversation spinning like the shuttle of a weaver. Our talking continued until the sky was all lit with a golden hunter’s moon of great size and brightness, and the path of the moon showed across the grey, as yellow as stretches of wild daffodils which the Gypsies cull and hawk in springtime.

The rain cleared with the rising of the moon, and the frost came, chilling our feet and legs despite the heat of the fire. So we covered our feet with straw to keep away the front, and placed sheets of paper or sacks over our backs, all in typical Romany custom. And then we talked on for a while further. The dogs crept close to the fire and then piled their bodies upon each other for warmth, whereas the bantams had long time ago hopped back into their boxes nailed beneath the vans.

William Smith was a man of some fifty years. Despite his life out of doors his face was pale as candle tallow. It was his paleness as contrasted with the general ruddiness of the Romany race that had inspired the Surrey Gypsies to name him White Will. He was also called Mouse, by some, and it was explained to me by the Vincents, for instance, that Will had earned the name of Mouse because he was so little and nimble, and was always around his caravan, a-hopping in and out for countless reasons, and also he bred children rapidly. THe name was given to him in kindliness.

I never beheld Will without his mouse-grey tweed cap and waistcoat and his dark-blue dicklo. He was always somewhat “drest-up” and over-neat for a Romany. The tufts of hair which showed beneath his cap were fuzzy and dark, whereas all of his children without exception were flaxen-haired of very straight growth. The hair of the children came from their mother, Eliza, who was not puro Romano but was part mumper (non-Gypsy traveller) stock.

Eliza, like Will, was of short, meagre stature. Her face was fine and keen and showed much character, especially the thin-lipped, firm, somewhat fierce mouth. The eyes were small and sunken, of a pale-blue hue, and generally watery. She herself had not the flaxen hair of her children, her own locks being honey-coloured, also sparse and wispy, and much dishevelled, with usually leaves and twigs sticking there. As with most Gypsy mothers, she was fiercely maternal, adoring her children with every glance from her pale eyes or word from her thin-lipped mouth. She was sharp-tongued, but I never heard her shrewish or unjust. Her great hate on earth was “they bengs (devils) o’ gravvers”, who wearied her heart with their complessing of the caravans into unceasing movement. Eliza did not dress in Gypsy style, but as a working woman, in print dress and shawl. She always wore well-darned stockings and neat boots kept in good repair.

The family present in Young Street were three sons and five daughters. The eldest child lived away from the family, she being wife to one of the Black Coopers. The second and third daughters, Charlotte and Mary, were fair young women, but the best-looking of them all was Mayday, wife of the eldest son, Bill. She was a true Romany beauty, with her mass of shining hair, russet and bright as a fox’s tail in love-time, and her slanting eyes of grey-green, set above her firm coralline cheeks glowing with the rich red blood that fed her flesh.

Joe, in his early teens, was the keeper of his family’s horses; horses being his great love. He possessed a goodly knowledge of farrier’s medicine, concerning which we had many interesting talks together. The lad carried around with him a sack of various herbs: green broom-tops as a worm cure, to be given fasting; mallow leaves and comfrey to draw and heal festering sores and cure wounds; coltsfoot for coughs, and bran for poulticing, in addition to its use as a tonic and laxative. Wounds he plugged with handfuls of cobwebs taken from the hedgerows, and sprinkled their raw surfaces with black pepper to act as a disinfectant. The lad was sweet-natured, though aged in the face and over-grave for his young years. He wore a soldier’s discarded jacket for his habitual clothing, and kept his yellow hair cut in long side-chops and plastered with grease over his forehead. When I asked him what he wanted from life, he replied very surely: to be left in peace to travel the country with his horses, nothing more. “I’se glad to be a Gypsy, out in the fields, ridin’ and keepin’ the griaws (horses), that’s good enough fer me, nothin’ coud be better, nothing I’se heard tell of.”

“That’s true, Joe. Out of the fields with the animals is the good life and always has been.”

The youngest son, George, was the clown of the family; they said that he might go into a circus one day. A thin, bloodless, rickety limbed, midget lad, notable for his grimacing – but very likeable – pathetic face, and a wonderously supple body, which enabled him to contort himself into many fantastic shapes. He could pull very funny, high laughter-provoking, clown faces and sing comic jingles. He was further a skilled step-dancer, in Gypsy style, and gave exciting performances to the accompaniment of his brother Bill’s accordion.

The remainder of the family were girls, all flaxen-haired and very prim. In their neatness, and because of the old expression on their young faces, they much reminded me of the Smith family of the New Forest, with whom I had worked one summer through in the strawberry fields. The youngest child, Minny, was the strongest-willed infant whom I have ever met. All of the girls, from the eldest to the youngest, with the exception of Mayday, had soaped their hair into Gypsy flat curls for the benefit of my second visit and to gain my admiration; and the golden curls looked like many rows of sovereigns resting on the pale brows.

Other Gypsies said of the White Will family: “They are so white.” And white indeed they were.

Much has been written concerning the general ill health of the modern Gypsy in England, and there is truth in such reports; especially concerning the rapid incidence of tuberculosis amongst them; although in other lands the Gypsies have retained well their traditional splendid health and general ruggedness. Less than fifty years ago W. H. Hudson, the naturalist writer, was praising greatly the health of the English Gypsies, commenting on their imperviousness to wet and cold, and declaring that he had never seen a Gypsy with a cold, aching bones or indigestion. It is the modern degenerate diet which is bringing disease to the English Romanies, also their increasing poverty under present-day regimented life. Once the Gypsies had lived upon wheaten bread or porridge made often enough from flour from field gleanings, beaten out and then crushed between stones; field vegetables and herbs, and flesh of the wilding animals, such as rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, and badgers and the larger birds and river fish. Now all has become controlled and protected, the poor no longer are able to glean the fields – the farmer’s poultry is put there to clean up all the fallen grain – and the wild animals are strictly preserved or ar largely vanished due to the increasing interference of man in the wild places of the countryside. The present-day diet of the Gypsies is as degenerate as that of the gawje, with the basic element of white-flour bread, gas-treated and mineral-depleted; blue pasteurized, lifeless milk; frozen butcher’s meat; and vegetables made internally foul with chemical manuring of the earth, and fruits poison-sprayed.

However, many Romany families known to me endeavour to seek out the natural foods, as I too seek them; brook water, wild herbs and berries, fruits from old orchards where modern farming methods of insect control, with poison and gas have not yet found entry, and stone-ground brown flour, and farm milk raw and natural. Such Gypsies have retained the powerful health of their race, and are ruddy of face and strong and swift of limb, and totally resistant to the wet and cold of the English climate.

I think with the White Will family that it was their staple diet of white bread and potatoes that gave to their faces such whiteness despite the burn of the sun and the blow of the wind: for they were a weathered family, and would sit out around their fire even when snow was falling.

Pages 114-117

It appeared to be the usual trouble of the gawje hostility to the Gypsy: the cuckoo in the midst of the thrushes. Happier when the cuckoo was surely on its way again to the foreign parts from whence it had come, and was no longer upsetting the peace of the fields nd the woods with its unlawful ways, and its restlessness and wild music. Calling, calling, calling: “Cuckoo, cuckoo!” all day long. The thrushes filled with hereditary suspicions and fears – and some of them warranted – would surround the cuckoo and mob it.

But Eiza’s husband, many years dead, had foreseen such trouble when he decided to settle his family. With money earned from horse-trading he had purchased the small tract of land, portion of the hostile earth. So that as long as the money was forthcoming for the payment of rats, the family remained secure in possession. Eiza, the bristles on her chin standing forth in her passion, brought out her latest rates receipt to show me. (I think as a Gypsy she resented paying rates: but it was necessary to hold her land, and therefore was accepted.)

“Look ye,” she said to Rose and I, “all is regular. So long as I’ve the shukoraws (sixpences) in me pootsi (packets) to pay rateses the gawjes can do their worstest, there’s no shiften’ o’ we. I’se knowd what ‘tis to be pushed ‘ere and there the year lorng by the baulos (pigs), an’ now I’se thankful to stay on in one place in comfort.”

Avaalt (yes), I said to cool her ardour, but I lowered my eyes. For I could not help thinking that Gypsies are better out on the road travelling the world, close to the pulsating breasts and thighs of Nature, not held in a black train through the years. The travelling life would have been more fortunate for Eiza’s plain pallid daughters, who might well live out their lives childless in the black train, their beds for ever empty of pleasure. But I could well sympathize with Eiza’s resentment concerning hostility of the gawje population and the endless hounding by the police when the Gypsies are jallin the drom (taking the road).

I said nothing of my thoughts, and instead turned my mind to the fact of the music within the train; the true Gypsy music. Loud breathing of the burning firewood as it opened out its feathers of crimson and gold, the sibilation of the fast-steaming kettle, the stirrings of the dogs as they beat the wooden floor with long tails in appreciation of the conversation, and the unceasing chatter of human voices, laced through with the bell peals of laughter.

I could see that Rose was enjoying the music and the picture of the Gypsy scene, and also the company. For her face was flushed and her eyes very bright.

In the last hour of our visit the Cooper family was increased by the arrival of the only unmarried son. He possessed some of Caroline’s darkness, and vitality, but was entirely toothless. He was tall of stature and well made. But there was little of the Gypsy recognizable in his appearance, other than the character of his big semitic nose and his very abundant crop of hair.

His sisters made much of him, giving up a chair in good position by the fire, filling his teacup and piling his plate, rolling cigarettes for him and even striking the matches for the lighting of them whenever he had need; thus proving what good wives they could make.

All of the family loved tobacco, and especially Eiza. She confessed that she was “more of a chimbley than a wooman”, on account of the amount of “baccy smoke that goes through me mooi an’ nock”.

The son worked as a builders’s help and seemed to be a Communist. I was able to understand his choice of political party when I thought upon the present-day official policy of Gypsy persecution in England and elsewhere. The Gypsies of Russia are reputed to live free from persecution and to have their rights respected. Few Gypsies in England possess and election vote, they being habitually people of “no fixed abode”. But those who are settled in houses and pay their rates, surprisingly almost always vote Conservative. The horse-trader Jim Vincent stated the reason plainly enough.

“We Romanies live orf the rich. ‘Tis the rich who buys our horses an’ keeps the fields alongside which we can graze our animals. Our hens need green stuff an’ our horses. ‘Tis the rich who buys our cartloads o’ dung for their gardens an’ our crack (fire- wood, Surrey Gypsy word), an’ does trade wi’ our wimin. Buys pegs an’ flowers, and will give along wi’ the tradin’, old clothes an’ boots; and their sarvints like having their hands dukkered.”

It was fortune-telling that completed the visit to the Coopers. Eiza, being a true artist in dukkeriben, and anxious to prove her talent, would not let Rose depart without having her hand read.

The willing Rose was then lead away from us all, out into the yard with the hens and the dogs, accompanied only by Eiza, to experience the old Gypsy’s fortune-telling art. Rose was away a good half-hour. She returned to us filled with praise for Eiza’s talent, wit which opinion I fully agreed.

The time for our departure had then come, for dusk was settling over the wood and the flittermice were abroad in the purpling sky. On the minute of departure Eiza skilfully secluded me from her family long enough to inquire of me concerning the withering of the looromengros upon whom she had spoken her curse. She was satisfied to know that since her cursing they were being almost emptied of the former power that they had possessed.

Finally Eiza put Gypsy blessing upon both Rose and me as we passed over the threshold of her home. Two of the elder daughter brought a bunch of wildflowers for each of us. All the lovely flowers of midsummer which the Gypsies know so well where to cull. In abundance of wondrous scented honeysuckle in the bunch, and linden blossom, mignonette, thyme, chamomile, scabious, all wild, and tightly bunched, possessing a fragrance like a dream, the flowers tied around with the customary pale green wool of the cooper family.

Rose and I said our farewells to all, sincerely grateful for the unceasing and kindly hospitality within the Cooper home. The family had well understood how to dispense true hospitality. It was sadly, and yet knowing contentment for the experience, that I left the black train. The yard dogs barked and danced again and Rose and I went by, and the hens also spoke. Then following after us came the chorusing good nights of the Gypsies. “Kushto ratti! Kushto ratti! (Good night)” and the ringing bells of Caroline’s laughter.

“Well?” I asked of Rose.

“A wonderful visit,” she declared. “All of it. Wonderful. I’ll always remember those Gypsies.”

“And old Eiza? What of old Eiza?”

“A true Gypsy, a very true Gypsy.”

Yes, Eiza Cooper, vendor of wild flowers, is a true representative of the Romany race. A Gypsy blessing on Eiza and her family. May we continue in friendship for ever.

Pages 110-113

As Gypsies Wander - pic page 113 As Gypsies Wander - pic page 113 (2)

The Cooper family lived in a derelict train on the border of a wood. When I think back on that Romany home I recall the one colour of black, although the actual atmosphere of the place was colourful enough. But everything material of the dwelling was black, smoke-dyed by the endless wood fires that the Gypsies burnt in their strange habitation unsuited for such fires. Their home was almost without furniture and entirely without ornaments and other decorations. It could fairly be described as very comfortless and was barren as a piece of fire-charred moorland A wooden floor, black; wooden walls and ceiling, black; a few wooden chairs with sawn-off  legs to bring them close to the earth – a requisite of traditional Gypsy taste – black; a collection of boxes for further seating accommodation and two tables of nailed boxes, all were black. The centre-piece of the home was the big black iron kettle, hooked on the customary iron rod, and swinging above the smoky fire. In the dark corners of the place black cats lurked, their amber eyes like topaz stones, flashing out from the onyx shadows and from the dark curtains of smoke. For there being a strong wind blowing on that Sunday the fire was outpouring black volcanic clouds of smoke, which smarted one’s eyes and tickled the throat into coughing.

Our welcome was rapturous, our hosts having been keeping a look-out for our arrival. Never have I experienced more sincere pleasure from my hosts on any visits that I have made. Old Eiza bustled forth to embrace Rose, and myself, shrieks of laughter came from Caroline from behind a cloud of belching wood-smoke, and a chorus of greetings from the four older Cooper daughters present. The shrill female greetings came out from the gloom like the pipings of blackbirds heard in a dark grove. Outside in the rubbish-filled yard, big shaggy black and white cur dogs danced on their chains barking and coughing, and hens chirped and made excited flutterings with their stiff wings.

I had brought with me some groceries to help forward the tea party. The contents of my basket caused further orchestra of pleased exclamations from all members of the Cooper family, to which the yard dogs outside and the cats within added their own noises. What clamour there was! But also what good spirit and friendliness and merriment.

The tea was made immediately into the massive kekawbi (kettle), no pot being used. Into the tea, already bubbling in the kettle, a further handful of leaves was pitched to strengthen the present over-weakly brew of poverty. The kettle was never for one moment off the fire nor out of the use throughout my stay in the train.

Before the tea was served, a bucket of clean water was brought into the compartment which was used as the living-room, and where the black kettle reigned. Into that bucket all of the tea-cups, saucers and plates to be used at the meal were placed, and well rinsed before being set on the table. That cleansing rite reminds me of the koshering (cleansing. Hebrew word but also used in Romany) of utensils before eating that I have witnessed in the Yemenite tent homes in the mountains of Galilee. The traditionally nomad Yemenites are always in the eyes of the Gypsies of the Hebrew nation. And I loved and admired them most of all the Jewish tribes I met with in Israel.

Caroline in her high excitement broke a saucer into two pieces. She thereupon immediately retired into the yard and smashed the saucer a further three times. On returning she informed us that such was a Romany custom to break apart her ill luck, and that failure to act thus would most surely mean that she would have been losing good crockery for the rest of the year. Now she had made herself safe from further losses.

The action of Caroline caused us to discuss Gypsy superstitions, and Rose and I learnt much. Amongst the good omens of which the Gypsies spoke there are, stars falling, a horse standing with its head over a gate – a white horse is especially lucky; bees entering a vardo (caravan) or tan (tent); birds jetting their droppings on to one’s hair or clothing – especially propitious being the droppings of pigeons and starlings; finding double flowers and double berries; a robin tapping on the vardo roof or window; a frog hopping upon the vardo steps. The feared omens are: an owl hooting closely after dawn – when the bird would positively be calling a soul from a human body; seagulls flying over the vardos – a threat of death to the family in occupation; a bittern brooming; a cuckoo heard after midsummer; and the crowing of a hen bantam – any hen bantam heard to crow would be killed immediately by her owners; the screams of a falling tree – the ears should be covered quickly by the hands when a felled tree is about to die. To burn wantonly flour or bread was particularly unlucky; no Gypsy would ever throw such substance into the fire. Neither would a true Gypsy burn green elder boughs, kill snails or water-wagtail birds. The reasons for the two final superstitions are very Gypsy. The elder is the favourite tree of the Romanies, it gives them so much: medicine for themselves and their horses, food in the rich berries and blossoms (the fresh blossoms dipped in flour and fried in batter), wood for numerous articles, especially pegs, riding and driving whips, seat-frames. Snails are traditionally spared from the cooking pot because they are symbolic of the Romanichals. The ancestors of the Gypsies came out of Egypt carrying their tents upon their backs, and the snail likewise carries its own dwelling place as it travels. The water-wagtail is the Gypsy bird – Romano chirickli – and is very lucky. When a Gypsy family nearing their journey’s end meet with a wagtail, they will travel no further, but finding the most suitable place close by where they saw the bird, halt there their caravans and pitch the tents.

Eiza then said that it was unlucky for a woman to give birth to a child without having had her ears pierced for the wearing of rings. She made Rose and me promise that we would have our ears pierced before such an event. She said, further, that she could do our ears for us that very moment if we were wishful. Just a darning needle hotted in the fire, threaded with a piece of strong cotton, much knotted after the threading. The needle then stabbed through the earlobes into a cork on the other side, the lobes well robbed with poppy-plant juices if the woman to be pierced be afraid of pain. But as neither Rose nor I wished to pass our Wit week-end with pieces of knotted cotton hanging from our bleeding ears, we temporarily declined Eiza’s offered operation.

Rosemary was well accepted by the Cooper family, and our conversation never ceased. They treated her entirely naturally and were as friendly and straightforward with her as they had always been on my lone meetings with them. Eiza and her daughter looked after their guests graciously, filling cups and plates instantly when emptied.

I have often been reproved by my friends for finding so much beauty amongst the Gypsies. I have been told that often enough: “In your eyes all Gypsies are beautiful.” But that is not true. In my Gypsy writings the majority of the personalities whom I have described have been beautiful. That happens to be because it is mostly the beautiful or the unusual characters met on my travels who have stayed foremost in my mind and given to me writing material for my books and poems. In fairness to truth I shall therefore tell that Eiza’s elder daughters were among the plainest women of any race that I have seen. It seemed remarkable that they would be sisters to the dark, vital Caroline. The three elder sisters were tall massive women, with scant tawny hair, and sallow shapeless faces. Their eyes were prominent, lacked expression and were pink-lidded. Their teeth very long and much stained a brown hue from incessant tea-drinking.

I think that it was the monotonous and miserable existence that those unwedded sisters endured, segregation in the train, that much accounted for their drab and unattractive appearance. For year after year they lived on in the smoke-blackened train at the edge of the lonely wood. They passed their days and their years bunching the wild flowers or making artificial ones for their mother and youngest sister -Caroline- to sell in the towns. Caroline was sent out with the hawking baskets because she was attractive to the gawjies, and thus sold the wares more readily than the others. Romance passed them by as with the Lady of Shalott. The little of the world that they saw was through the smoke darkened windows of their home. The nearby wood might have been some vast trackless forest, holding back for ever the coming of the princes of romance. Poor women; and in the great heart of that wood the nightingales were singing their songs of love, and young cuckoos were trying their wings, learning to fly in readiness for far romantic journeyings to Africa and India.

Over the tea-cups Eiza and her daughters told of the tribulations that they had suffered on account of attempts by people to get them evicted from their train dwelling place.

Pages 101-109

 

CHAPTER VI

 

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.

Pages 95-100

As Gypsies Wander -  photo page 97

As Gypsies Wander - photo page 98

Having approached Epsom, Levi then turned back down the Dorking road and then went onwards towards Bookham. Finally he drove down Young Street and made approach to the river camp that way. Joe descended from the cart when it halted by the verge of the fields. Then, calling back to me that he would see me later by Emily’s vardo, he hurried away towards the rier in strange manner. However, for me, the ride had not ended there, the wildest stretch of the whole journey had yet to come. A second Gypsy left the cart and pulled down the barbed-wire fencing alongside the field facing the cart. Levi then once more cracked his whip, turned the horse’s head towards the river, and put the animal into a gallop over the rough, plough-rutted field. Then indeed did I have to seek the aid of the fair man.

I thought for sure that the cart would overturn on the plough-ridges, and often enough we progressed on but one wheel. Midway across the fields we hit a great stone and that came near to wrecking immediately the trolli (cart). The seven Gypsies riding on the cart shouted and cheered, and again Levi cracked his whip and gave then, in far-crying voice, the familiar call of the greisto-fairus: “Hi! Hi! Hi!” At the yelling of his voice and the explosions of the riding whip, a flock of crows, feeding amongst the wheat stubble, flighted in panic and came winging over the cart, beating the pearly air with their fringed jet wings. And then we were safely at the encampment.

At the halting the black horse was agleam with sweat, and the froth of his saliva was thick about the bit and lying like river-foam across his face and down his neck and even upon his sides where it had been blown by the speed-wind.

“A tatcho gry,” Levi said to me.

“Aye,” I replied.

 

 

Emily and Rachel were awaiting me by the riverside, and Joe was close by splitting pegs. He was splitting the cut sticks before their banding with the tin, a task which requires much deftness in order to prevent the cracking-open of the whole peg.

I gave to the sisters the clothes bundle that Florence had sent and my own dino of groceries and fruit, but they stayed not to look at them; they instead dragged me down on to the grass alongside them, telling me that they had something of importance to ask of me.

“Ask on miri kushti pens,” I replied

“Shoonta ke lokki (harken to her)!” exclaimed the sisters, and they embraced me.

The chief talker in the conversation that followed was Emily; though Rachel must have rehearsed previously, for she was able to follow well, and often joined Emily in words of agreement. Emily first took my hand into hers – and it was a union of two sun-brown, earth-roughened, chipped-nailed hands, for mine was the counterpart of the Gypsy’s, I doing much field work also.

“Tis this a-way,” Emily commenced in her low-pitched, vibrant voice. “Our Joe’s felled in love wi’ you, an’ is wantin’ to be wed wi’ you.”

I did not speak; and she continued: “Ever since you a-first cem to we, ‘e’s done nothin’ but sit at ‘ome ‘ere an’ talk o’ you. It ‘as been Julie, Julie, Julie, an’ nothin’ else. We loves you too, Rachel an’ me. If only you’d have Joe you could travel wi’ us allaways. You could bring ‘ere that gry o’ yourn, and Joe’d del (provide) a kushto vardo, and we could all travel the counties kateni (together), an’ you could ‘awk the fidas along o’ us. Oh, Julie, you tell ‘im avali (yes). Tell Joe avali.”

I turned towards Joe, His pegging knife went ‘slish-slash through the hazel lengths, and little amber flakes of wood gyrated to the ground. The Gypsy’s head was bent low and the black wings of his wonderful hair lay upon his yellow dicklo. I wished that I could have told Joe avali. To become Joe’s wife would have been easy escape for me from the net of life’s problems which had entangled me ever since I was a child. Away with Joe, travelling the country roads, there would be escape from further knowledge and thought of all the cruelties and injustices which blighted my life; the hanging of human beings, vivisection of animals, and the horror of slaughter-houses, the tyranny of the big-business magnates – especially the manufacturing chemists who adulterate and poison the world’s foods under the guise of improvement and hygiene and accumulate fortunes thereby; all of which I had vowed to fight. The travelling life would take me away from news of all such things, for Gypsies read not newspapers and they stand apart from politics. I would further end immediately the thraldom of my typewriter, a machine I never could tolerate, and would no longer have to keep company with a case-load of reference books. Away over the hills with Joe, and no work more arduous than the making of the little golden pegs, the keeping of one vardo, and the pleasurable bearing of Gypsy children. Such were they happy thoughts that passed through my mind. Like the golden and red leaves of the autumn trees, the pleasure thoughts whirled around me – and then swept by. The wind of life took them away and would not let them stay with me: because for the present I knew surely that there was no possibility of fulfillment. For certain there awaited me three more years of work before I could escape into Gypsy life, if I were not to suffer the long pains of a guilty conscience, resultant from labour uncompleted and thus worthless. Furthermore, on the morrow there was the commencement of my journey to Mexico, a visit which I foreknew would be of the utmost importance to my past and present work. Then finally I was aware that the Gypsy life in England was not a very good thing. The land was too crowded with houses and people, and there were too many petty laws and restrictions curtailing the freedom which is the true wine of Gypsy life. The wind on the heath no longer blew where it listed, and too often it smelt of factory fumes. Then, furthermore, I wanted to drink my wine of life in the sunlight and there was insufficient sun for me in the English skies. And above all I did not love Joe. He had been a most pleasant companion to me in the time that I had known him, and I would not forget him, but this was not the Gypsy fire of love which I knew was to be found on earth if one sought it, far and long enough. Yet nevertheless I felt sick at heart when the time came for me to say -”naw” instead of “avali” to the strange proposal. I had a powerful affection for the three Gypsies siting near me amongst the poppy swathes, their dark keen eyes concentrated upon my face.

I felt surely that never in my life would there come to me a sweeter proposal of marriage – than there by the River Mole in the company of the beautiful Gypsy women and the kindly Joe. The wind rustling through the poppies and the dying autumn grasses, the willows making their sighing music and the river prattling as it went onwards over its stony bed fringed with the shining lissom reeds; and Joe’s pegging knife too making its own endearing music. All was beguiling.

My eyes lowered in sadness and I could no longer meet the ardent gaze of the Gypsies. Rachel, keener of feeling and sight than Emily, as is often the way of the deaf, sensed that I was to reply unfavourably to Joe, and she wrung her thin brown hands dramatically, and cried shrilly to Emily Joe. “O she’s not agoin’ to stay wi’ us, oh dordi! (dear me) dordi!”

I then left Emily and Rachel and went to Joe’s side, and knelt amongst the litter of peg-chips, and thanked him for wanting me for his wife. I tried to explain to him why I had to leave England for Mexico. Joe continued with his pegging work, his knife slashing and he spoiling many pegs. His eyes revealed nothing to me of what he was thinking; so dark and mysterious they looked in his swart face. And close by him I was enamoured of his wonderful hair, the jet silk of it contrasting with the chrome of his neck-scarf.

Joe then told me. “If you loved me proper you’d atch (stay, camp) along o’ we, an’ not be away to Mexicy.”

I defended. “It’s not only for myself that I go, my work is for others.”

“Peg-makin’ an’ ‘awkin’ be sufficient work fer any rackli (girl),” Joe said firmly.

“Avali,” Emily and Rachel supported him.

I shook my head. “Later,” I said. “Good work for me later, but I’ve tasks to finish now in Mexicy an’ elsewhere.”

Joe put down his pegging knife and his eyes held mine. “I love you,” he exclaimed. “I would wed wi’ you. You’d best ‘atch along o’ we.”

Mean I felt, and worthless, when I could but say “I’ll be back in England soon enough, half a year in Mexico, no longer. I’ll never forget you, Joe, nor Emily and Rachel. I’ve been very happy with you all.”

“Look, Joe, ‘ow sad ‘er eyes be,” said Rachel. “Tatcho sad.” She was trying to take my part and also sooth her brothers feelings.

“Tatcho sad! Tatcho gry!” I thought, recalling my ride with Levi. How strange and how sweet a day it had been. I then said to the Gypsies, “I am very sad to leave you.” And they knew that I spoke in truth.

Soon after we were joined by a great company of Gypsies, Levi and Ephram, with all the men who had ridden with me on the cart, and many more. Most of the black sons of Selina Lee were there: strange and exciting company it was. The others had not the grave manner of Joe, they were laughing and flirting around me, so that for me it became like Appleby horse-fair again. There was an atmosphere of high revelry. Groups were step-dancing to music of the accordion; others sat upon the ground, playing cards or dice, all favourite pastimes of Gypsy men.

When dusk came I had to leave the camp, and I said my farewell to Joe and Emily and Rachel, and to Levi and Ephram also. Joe walked after me and put into my hand a clothes-peg.

“Keep this ‘ere fida,” he said, “an’ sometimes tek it in yer ‘and an’ think on poor Joe.”

“Parik tuti (thank you),” I replied. “This be a lucky peg I’m sure. I’ll keep your peg fer ever, Joe, that I swear. An kushto bokt (good luck) to you, my sweet friend, kushto bokt.”

“Kushto bokt,” he made answer.

Joe’s clothes-peg will stay with me always. I have had to write his name upon it, for in the many years since my parting with Joe I have had a score of clothes-pegs from Gypsies, given to me in friendship and love.

Pages 90-95

“Aye,” retorted Joe. “But dicklos be Gypsy an’ git people a-starin’ at we; ‘tis better to dress like the rest when us be in the gav (town) places.”

“I feel like Emily,” I intervened. “Dickos are for Gypsies, and such lovely ones they  have, gay and proud things they are, like peacock feathers.”

Joe then stated that he must do a bit of work and get some fidas (pegs) made, and that as a man cannot work well without a fire to companion him, he had better get a kusto yog (good fire) going. He very soon proved himself to be a skilful fire-maker, for in the shortest time he had a great brushwood fire flaming brighter than the nearby corn-poppy swathes. As always in Gypsy camps, the lighting of the fire was the jota-cry for all to gather near. The children left their play by the river and lay upon their stomachs basking in the fire heat as the brown salamanders which the Spanish Gypsies declare live within their fires and can be heard singing amongst the burning olive roots. The dogs came, too, and basked; the great black deerhound, two lurchers of Gypsy breed, and four terriers. Even the horses drew in closer to the human and animal circle around Joe’s fire.

I kicked off my shoes and lowered the neck of my blouse and rew close to the wonderful leaping crimson fire, as close as I could bear without scorching my skin and my hair. The Gypsies laughed at me. “She’s motto (drunken) wi’ fire just as we is,” Joe declared.

Joe then announced that he was not going to make any fidas after all. For life was very sweet just resting and rockering (talking) by the yog, and he would for sure work hard on the ovavo divvus (morrow).

We all sat by the fire for hours, in deep happiness, the talk of us rising and falling like the fire flames: only it was difficult for Rachel, because of her deafness. But Joe shouted back the words for her. Emily told me concerning Joe, that he was very kind to her and Rachel, that he was the best of brothers-in-law. For his part Joe told me that he loved the company of Emily and Rachel, and that they were like two wives to him for kindness.

I stayed by the Gypsy fire until starlight, and then i had to hurry back over the fields to my hut on the island, for there was much work waiting to be done before I departed for Mexico.

“Kushto-raati Romany pen. (Good night Gypsy sister.)” Clear and sweet Gypsy voices called after me across the fields.

When I returned to the Gypsy camp on the morrow afternoon Joe was far into his peg-making. The same group was there as on the yesternoon, Emily, Rachel, and their children, with the dogs and horses. The husbands Levi and Ephram were away with the flat-cart – “trading”. A great fire burned, tossing its flowers of crimson and ocre into the grey noon air. It had been a night of heavy rain, and the November grass was steaming in its wetness, and all the petals of the poppies were bruised and flattened. But taking no heed of the wet the Gypsies sat on the earth, grouped around the peg-maker, Joe, and his fire. Rachel was occupied in threading a string of blue glass beads for Emily, and Emily was again suckling her dark babe, and also helping with the pegs.

Joe was hatless and wearing a canary-coloured dicklo, and the sisters laughing and tittering, told me behind their hands that the dicklo was “Joe’s best”, and was being worn that noon only for my benefit. So I told Joe that I liked well his dicklo, which was true enough, and when he, bending over his pegs, brought the black wings of his shimmering, wonderful hair down upon the canary cloth, then I beheld great beauty.

I watched carefully the interesting art of Gypsy peg-making, in which all then were helping, including the youngest of the children, though Joe as the wood shaver and splitter had the main task. Peg-making commences with the gathering and then the shaving of willow sticks, when the cut lengths are known as “feeders”, a word confusing with the romany name of fidas for the finished article, though the West Country Gypsies call the made pegs troosheni (from the word troashi – bundle) often enough, and sometimes eezaw koshti kova (clothes-stick thing). The shaving of the cut lengths is accomplished with the chiv – a special knife: that was one of Joe’s tasks. The children were employing themselves in the task of preparing the kuris koosis (tin bits), which is done merely by heating old tin cans in the hot embers to melt the solder, and then flattening them over a stone, using another flat stone for that purpose. Rachel’s task was cutting with clippers of the kuri into thin strips ready for the banding on to the pegs. Each kuri strip has to have a hole pierced into it to take the fine tack which fastens the strip around the wood of the peg, in a neat band – the burnt outside going against the wood, the bright side only being exposed. For that purpose there is the kuri-kosh, or tinning block, this being heavy block of wood fitted with a sharp piece of steel standing up from the wood rather like a dog’s fang. Through hammering over the fang a double hole is made in each tin band, and this being bound around the peg-stick, the tiny tack is then nailed into place. All that was Emily’s task, which she performed very adroitly. Joe, in addition to shaving the sticks, was also the splitter of the banded pieces. The pegs are split with several deft cuts of the special fidas-chiv, the operation requiring skill in order to prevent the wood from being much splintered, when it would not then hold the clothes well and would be over rough for fine materials. But Gypsies being highly skilled peg-makers, their articles are always excellent, and hold the clothes far better and last far onger than the machine-made product.

From his work with the chiv Joe was creating a great amber mound of peg shavings, which he fed in handfuls to the joyful, shouting fire. Oh, there was much sound there around the peg-makers’ fire! Other than the fire’s own sound there was the pouring of the near river swollen with the recent rains; the stir of the willow trees with their burdens of dead and dying leaves; the murmur of the low-pitched attractive voices of the two Gypsy women companioned by the shrill piping of the laughing chauvis (children), and the hammering of their stones upon the fired tins; and above all the slashing of Joe’s knife. I had taken over the threading of the blue beads to leave Rachel’s hands free for the peg work, but I was making little progress with my tasks, my eyes and my ears were so entranced by the peg-makers.

By duks the peg work was ended, and then we gave ourselves up to talk again. Emily showed me long-stretching scars upon her body where wheels of her fathers caravan had passed over her, during one of the many travelling accidents that befall the Gypsies. Emily’s own accident was romantic. One Fairus-divvus (fair-day) she had been wearing a new white dress, very long and wide of skirt. She had positioned herself above the caravan shafts, wanting to show off her fine dress as the caravan speeded to the fair. Then a wind blowing around the swiftly moving vehicle had lifted her skirts and caused her to unbalance and fall towards the ground. Her skirt had become entangled and the wheels had crushed her. She had been months in a sick-bed as the result of her injuries.

Many other GYpsies have shown me scars left from traveling accidents- falls from caravans and tilt carts and from horseback; also many scars from burning, especially prevalent on the children, and they fall into the camp-fire during play or their clothing catches alight. Many a Romany child has been burnt to death from the open outdoors’ fires; and yet without exception the Gypsies, man, woman, child, and dog, remain passionate fire-worshippers. I, in turn, told them of some of my own accidents, and showed them my scars from dog and horse bites, tearings by barbed wire, and marks from the many motor accidents that I have experienced.

Soon Levi and Ephram came to the fire. They both seemed very filled with drink and further talk was no more possible. So we continued to sit around the fire, and we sang songs, and Emily made a good Gypsy cake – Romani marikli. This she made from flour, water, egg, salt and some fat. She pounded the cake into a round mound, and then, making a hole in the heart of the fire, placed the cake there and covered all with ashes. Soon a most pleasing savoury smell began to arise from the fire. After some time Emily raked out her cake by means of the iron kettle crane, She then chivved off all of the burnt outside layer, and within was a fine golden cake. She broke up into portions with her hands, and handed a piece to everyone, and we ate the cake steaming hot. The outside shavings she fed to the dogs, and they ate all up in enjoyment. She said that her cake was so successful because there was much hazel wood on the fire, and that wood was the best for baking bread.

Again I had work to do in preparation for my near journey, and I could not stay the night long with the Gypsies: but sad I was to leave their company by the leaping fire. I promised to return on the morrow for what was to be my farewell visit. Sad we all are at the thought of the long parting, and I to be leaving my friends in the cold winter fields with the police ever pestering and hounding them. I was the more fortunate, for like the swallow I was flying towards the sun. The fire -the sun, the sun – the fire, like the true Gypsy I worshipped both.

I had saved my week’s rations of sugar and tea and fats as my parting dino for my Gypsy friends, and I filled up my baskets with more fruits form the orchard. Furthermore, Florence Mahon gave me a good bundle of clothes and boots which her family had outgrown. Gypsies never do object to wearing old clothing, they declaring that worn clothing is better luck than new, providing that the garments have come from good-natured people; they would want nothing on their bodies which may have been looked upon with the doosh-yok (evil eye). It is a similar thought to that met with in Gypsy horse-trading, when wept-over or shouted-over animals are rejected by Gypsies because of the ill luck they bring to the buyer.

My parting dino was heavy upon my arms, owing to the weight of the boots in the clothing bundle and the fat, red apples in my basket. It was therefore Gypsy good fortune that I had but stepped out of the gate on to the main road, when Levi came racing buy, driving a great black horse harnessed to his flat-cart. The cart was crowded with Romany men, most of them strangers to me, though amongst them I saw the dark faces of Joe and Isaac Cooper. Levi checked his horse violently and called me to take a ride with him. I said that I would be happy to have the ride and I hoped that later he would drive me to camp as I had some things for his wife and sister Rachel. Levi said that he would take me there, but that at the moment he was trying out a new gry.

Joe stretched out his hands to me and swung me up on to the cart. Levi then drove off on what was to be the wildest ride that I have experienced in my life, and I have had many experiences of trap and cart riding with the Romanies, and I have also owned my own pony trap, driving a part-broken excitable mare. Yet never before and never since anything like that ride with Levi!

Levi cracked his long whip and the horse reared, and we were off and away into the grey November mists ahead. The cart raced down the Dorking road and then turned left towards the by-pass for Epsom. The hooves hammered the roadway, the wheels made the furious sound of rocks avalanching, and the wind whistled around us; there was further the swish of scattered leaves and the slithering sound of the abruptly-halted hooves and wheels when other traffic came into the area of the frantic horse and cart. Levi’s long whip smote the air, cracking there like gorse-pods exploding in the sun, and the eight Gypsy men shouted their pleasure and excitement at the speed and fiery temperament of Levi’s new horse. And when he could spare moments from his driving, Levi would look back into the cart and call to me: “Tis a tatcho (true) gry! A tatcho gry!”

He knew that I was interested in horses, and he felt that there was rather a spirit of rivalry between us, as I had been praising up my own mare Greensleeves when in conversation with him.

“Aye!” was all the answer that I could give to his cries of tatcho gry. I did say to the other men that Lei’s new horse would not stay tatcho for long if he continued to drive it at such a pace on the slippery concrete road.

“Tis ‘is way,” said Joe, smiling.

Joe was having to hold me to prevent me from falling on to the roadway, as there is nothing on which to get any grip on a flat-cart, one’s place upon it is only kept by practiced balance and I was very unpracticed. I would have been flung upon the road if Joe had not taken hold of me.

A young fair-haired Gypsy on my other side asked if he could hold me too, and I answered that Joe was giving to me all the help that I needed! The fair ma then said, “E loves you,” and he indicated Joe. “Why don’t you both get swisht (married).”

Laughing at the Gypsy’s words, I turned to Joe, but Joe would not meet my eyes.

Pages 83-89

CHAPTER V

 

More Raggle-Taggle in Surrey

 

Two families of Gypsies hatched their vardos and tans in the river meadows beyond Leatherhead. They came four days before I was to leave England for Mexico; my Mexican journey coming within the three months foretold by the Gypsy Clara Lee.

The two families were Surrey Gypsies, Coopers and Kings. They were wild-looking, wild-wayed people, and very good company. Every hour that I spent with them was all pleasure for me. I first saw sign of their arrival in the presence of a tilt-cart and tall skewbald pony, driven by a slight fair-complexioned Gypsy man of wild appearance, pelting down the Dorking road at dangerous speed. Accompanying the man was a small dark-haired attractive boy, wearing a woman’s black beaver-felt hat, such as many of the Surrey Gypsy women elders possess. Also in the cart was a great shaggy, black hound of greyhound build, much resembling a pure-bred Scottish deerhound. The speeding horse and cart and the Gypsies made a picturesque group, further picture being given by a rain of autumn leaves descending upon the travellers from boughs of the beech trees overhanging the road; for it was the month of November. I wondered if perhaps the Gypsies were merely passing through the town bound for some more distant place.

The following morning was a Saturday, and amongst the shopping crowd – always filling the narrow leatherhead pavements – I beheld two Gypsy women, both of them carrying babes, swinging in shawls at their sides. The women were very beautiful. It was not merely the imagination of my own eyes, which always look in love upon the Romanichals, for I heard remarks from people in the street as they passed near the Gypsies. “Gypsies! Gypsies!” they whispered at each other. “Good-looking people aren’t they!” Good-looking! Oh, beautiful! Beautiful! Like two bright-plumed birds-of-paradise passing down the street.

The Gypsies were not out hawking, but were buying groceries and bread which they were piling into their deep square hawking baskets. That convinced me that they were hatching (camping or staying) in or near Leatherhead. I went up to them and greeted them in Romany and asked them where were their vans? They were very friendly and told me that they were staying for a few days in the fields by the river below Young Street. They asked me to visit them there.

“Tooti-aveli sig (You come soon)” they besought of me, laughing shrilly because we used Romany words together and our voices were loud, and the shoppers in the street stared and wondered at the strange language.

The two women were related by marriage, Emily Cooper was married to Rachel’s brother Levi; Rachel was married to Ephram King – the dun-coloured man with the boy and the black deerhound whom I had seen driving the flat-cart earlier in the week. Emily was the most beautiful English Romany woman I have seen. Her face was so golden and glowing it well resembled a bunch of kil-koori (buttercup) flowers. Her long almond-shaped eyes were of intense blue and were brilliant things in her golden face. Her face was full and rounded, very firm-fleshed, with regular and beauteous features. Her abundant hair, looped low over her strong neck, was of such darkness that it was truly purple of hue, like the “blackheart” berries (bilberries) which the Gypsy women and children gather on the moors and commons in summertime. She was wearing a blouse of sun-faded blue satin, in parts the color of her eyes, a long skirt of bracken-tan, very ragged and patched, over which was a black cotton apron, which was equipped on its innerside with the habitual mongerin’ pootsi (begging-pocket) – so she told me on my asking her. Her shoes were battered objects with down-trodden heals, all the polish long washed away by rains and mud. But she walked in her mean shoes with the abundant grace general to the puro Romany. Her body was well-built, heavy almost, but graceful of movement.

Rachel was most unlike Emily, beautiful also, but of a different, almost sinister, beauty. She was tall and straight as a pillar of ebony, and was dressed entirely in black, her only show of Gypsy colour being a men-weriga (necklace) of coral beads, which I could see were true coral. She was the darkest English Romany woman I have beheld, just as her brother Levi, Emily’s husband, was the darkest man. Later I was to meet with more of Rachel’s brothers, Abraham, Reuben, Isaac and Ezra, all of exceptional swarthiness, the family indeed being known to the other Gypsies as the Kawlo (black) Lees or Coopers, they inheriting their darkness from their mother Selina. Her face was brown-skinned, and flat; flat except for very prominent cheek-bones which were raised and sharp like rocks upon her face. Her hair was as purple-dark as Emily’s, and equally abundant, but worn straight, hanging down on to her small high breasts. Rachel’s clothes were yet more raggle-taggle than her sister-in-law’s, but she walked the Leatherhead pavement with the pride and carriage of a princess of Egypt. It was understandable that people should stay to stare after her. Unfortunately Rachel was very deaf, and could only understand speech shouted into her ear.

Other Surrey Gypsies have told me that Emily and Rachel are haughty and unfriendly, “keepin’ theysels to theysels o’er much”; but that I did not find. My impression was one of friendliness, sympathy, abundant humour, and also intelligence. Two of the finest women of any race whom I have known.

In the afternoon I went on my promised visit to the caravans, taking with me the traditional dino (gift), which is a part of Romany courtesy. It being apple and pear time, I loaded my baskets with those fruits, fragrant as Lady Autumn’s own breathing, and glowing like diminutive harvest moons piled there against the rush sides of the baskets. It was an autumn afternoon of radiant sunlight, with orchestra of robin song and the golden and the red-hued leaves blowing from the trees and piling upon the brown waiting earth in sunset swathes. High in the hedgerows trailed the flowers of travellers-joy like soiled snow, mingling with the ruby berries of wild rose and hawthorn. A perfect setting for the Gypsy vardos and the black tans and the grazing horses, the camp pitch being a strip of grass alongside the river, with behind the caravans wide fields stretching away to the blue hills of Surrey. The fields were all gilded from the stubble of the wheat which recently had been harvested there, and their borders flamed with corn-poppies.

The barking of the camp dogs told of my arrival and brought pleased, shouted greetings, from Emily and Rachel. Rachel came climbing up through the reeds and willow clumps at the river’s edge, she accompanied by her two young sons. She was still clad in the black clothing of the morning, but her corals were replaced with a dicklo the redness of the poppy flowers. She held a long willow-wand with string and hook attached, with which she had been fishing. Emily was seated on the grass by her caravan, suckling a black-haired babe. There were poppies swaing all around her, so that the Gypsy woman sat within a circle of crimson flowers. Her white-skinned breast, so heavy with her abundance of rich milk and most fairly patterned with the purple tracings of the milk veins, contrasted strangely with the sun darkened skin of the woman’s throat, face and hands. Her feet then were naked of any covering.

“Besh opre the chor (sit upon the grass),” Emily called to me, and with her free hand made the poppies lay flattened into a silken crimson cushion for my coming. I sat myself at the Gypsy’s side and placed the fruit gift at her bare feet. Rachel joined us, and to the sweet song of the sucking babe we talked together of the life that was past and the possibilities of the life ahead. Being Romany women there was much talk about love: and what better talk could there be.

Emily was happily wedded with her dark Levi, but Rachel at the time was in ill-humour with her light Ephram. “Hokki akei! Hokki akei! Miri, kuhti pen (Look here! my sweet sister),” Rachel warned me. “Ne’er should a dark wed wi’ a fair, ne’er do th two be well swisht (married, surrey Gypsy word). There allus do be warrin’ one agen t’other. Shoon! (listen to me) Shoon! Ke mandi, miri kushti pen.”

“Aavali! (yes) Aavali, Rachel,” I said. “Me shoon.”

The camp site was close by the public footpath, and it was being a Saturday afternoon there were many passers-by. Emily, sitting facing the path, continued to suckle her child, giving no attention to the stranger people, giving all her attention to me. Gypsy women are never self-conscious about the breastfeeding of their babes in public. The mares of the Gypsies suckle their foals in the fields, the lurcher bitches their whelps, why not the mothers their babes? This natural simplicity which for me is such an endearing and praiseworthy quality in the human, was likewise noticeable amongst the peasant people of the Arab countries and Mexico. I shall long remember at a village Catholic midnight mass on a Christmas eve in Mexico, the Indian women suckling their babes in the church as they sang their praises in commemoration of the birth of another babe who drank first of his mother’s milk when in a stable.

After a while the women’s husbands came to join us; they, well knowing that they had been figuring much in our conversation, looked therefore constrained of face, which ill-suited the proud stallion body of Emily’s Levi. Rachel’s husband, Ephram King, I had seen already in Leatherhead. He was not an attractive-looking man apart from the interest of his wild-seeming appearance. His face had a weasel cast, and the impression that he gave was one of poverty of body and mind. The rich Gypsy blood seemed to have been diluted in that man’s veins. His body was thin and undeveloped, and his colouring of hair and flesh a uniform dun. But who can judge well and fairly a human character from mere physical appearance? Doubtless the Gypsy had his share of worthiness; for I heard some years later that Rachel was well reconciled to her man and had borne him another son. I think that my admiration for Rachel would have prejudiced my eyes, for I was wanting no lesser man that an Gypsy price for the dark princess of Egypt.

Levi Cooper, Emily’s husband was a man of picturesque and unusual appearance and obvious power of character, a typical example of the famed family of the black Lees. Levi was wearing a cloth cap, from beneath which streamed long locks of his charcoal black hair. His lean brown face, notable as the face of Rachel for its flatness and the prominent cheekbones, was very baleno (hairy) with its growth of black beard and the long moustaches about his strong-lipped, fierce-looking mouth. He was without a shirt, and his ragged tweed jacket failed to meet over his great hairy chest, and was belted with the twisted cord of a driving-whip, such as George Nicholson had taught me to plait from a length of strong string. The legs of his trousers came no further than the calves of his long powerful legs. He wore great clumping boots caked with clay and horse-dung. In his hand was a long chookni (driving whip) the throng blowing in the autumn wind. I thought Emily well mated: in the arms of that man she would enjoy a wild storm of Gypsy love. No wonder that Emily’s beauty blossomed so greatly and her face was golden colour of kil-koori flowers.

Levi talked with me concerning horses. He was proud that he was not a mere trader in horses but also bred and broke them himself. He had trained horses for circuses. The group of us then discussed herbal medicine for equine ailments. Levi’s favourite remedy was the mallow plant, which he found of use for the relief of almost all general horse complaints with the exception of worms, for which he employed the tops of green broom – before flowering. He was scornful concerning the gawje way of breaking horses, and he told me how he and other Gypsy horsemen achieve this. The unbroken animal is merely roped to one fully broken, which is ridden by a Gypsy. The Gypsy will then leap from the broken horse on to the back of the roped divio and thereupon fight the animal to a standstill and thus into temporary submission. A few further days of such training and the animal will be fully broken.

When the two husbands had left us, they harnessing a showy skewbald to the flat-cart and driving away across the field at fierce speed – Levi was without doubt the maddest horseman with whom I have been acquainted – Emily, Rachel and I continued to talk about medicinal herbs. Emily sang the praises of those in general use with the Surrey Gypsies; mallow, plantain and dock, all for the healing of wounds and bruises; dandelion, hops and toadflax for the cure of liver ailments, coltsfoot for coughs, yarrow and sorrel for fevers, nettle cresses and meadowsweet for blood-cleansing, and then teas of flowers for good cheer, marigold, cowslip, elder-blossom, speedwell and wildrose.
I told the sisters concerning herbal love potions, marigold flowers and water-mint, bark strips of common ash, and berries of the rowan tree. Then there are also the dew gathered from the leaf cups of the teasel plant, pollen shaken from hazel catkins and collected from the pistils of the autumn crocuses, walnut kernels ground and mixed into little cakes of flour, samphire pulled fresh from the sea rocks, and seeds of the yellow horned-poppy. We were nearing the end of such talk when another Gypsy man approached us, he being Ruben, though he took the name of Joe or Joseph, brother to Levi and Rachel.

He was a Gypsy of short stature, noticeable in contrast to the unusual tallness of the rest of Selina’s children. He wore ordinary clothing, not Gypsy: brown felt hat of trilby shape, balanced on the back of his head; semi-clean collar and a crumpled magenta tie, brown suit which was not even ragged. Only his boots with their abundant covering of clay and their laces of old knotted string were not similar to the town man’s. His face, however, bore the stamp of the Romany, in its dark weathering and wind and sun patterning of wrinkles despite the man’s youthfulness – he not having more than twenty odd years. The brilliance of the black eyes was Gypsy too, and above all the hair. For the hat was but balanced on the thick crop of wonderful hair, the same black-purple, bilberry-fruits indeed, hue of Emily and Rachel, yet more magnificent, shining and glistening like starling wings in the sun, so that at times the very blackness appeared to contain with its depths all colours. I looked in fascination at the Gypsy’s hair, and he, sensing my admiration, removed his hat, throwing it down amongst the poppies.

“I don’t like to see our men a-wearin’ corlers an’ ties,” then said Emily of her brother-in-law. “It don’t be natteral-like. Dicklos (neck scarves) belongs to our men.”

Pages 75-82

CHAPTER IV

 

Raggle-Taggle Travellers in Surrey

 

I was again living the Gypsy life, now in Surrey, my house being a wooden hut on an island by the river Mole beyond Leatherhead. There was again the pleasant Gypsy toil of fetching and carrying water in pais, the preparing of meals out of doors, and the eating of them sitting upon the grass; the gathering and consuming of fruits sweet and sun-cooked direct from the trees and bushes; the washing of dishes in the surging spring water, and clothes also, the clothes put out to dry upon “the bushes-o”.

Again the renewed companionship with the earth so that it was for me as Keats wrote concerning the Gypsy Meg Merrilees:

 

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees,
Alone with her great family
She lived as she did please.

 

I was able to walk barefoot most of the day and wear my friendly raggle-taggle clothing. And if I wanted guests for my meals there were always the squirrels and the wood pigeons; and the swans could be called down from the river, and would come in their perfect beauty, blowing like white roses down the dark stretches of the willow-hung Mole; such pleased and eager guests all.

Enjoying the Gypsy life my thoughts were often with Gypsies, for I knew that very many families of them travelled Surrey: and I longed for them.

I had been less than one month by the Mole when good fortune and keen hearing brought me a meeting with a party of Hampshire Romanies of the name Lovel, passing through Leatherhead on their way to the hop fields. In the early evening there came across the river to the island familiar and beloved sounds; the knock of horses’ hooves upon the roadway and the melody of turning wheels. God bless them! Gypsy caravans for sure. Too many horses, too much wheel-sound for any horse traffic else.

It was a goodly distance from the island to the road, and I was fearful that the travellers might have passed beyond reach of my voice. That proved not to be so, for when I arrived at the gate which lead on to the main Dorking road, the last of the four vardos was quite close to me, and I was able to call out to the Gypsies asking them to stay. The caravans were being pulled by strong Shire-type horses, three blacks and one grey, and there were a following string of other horses, some being ridden, the others lead; amongst them a pair of fine piebalds, the breed of horse dearest to the Gypsy heart and thought by them to be very lucky: the hushto-bock greiaw. Also many lurcher dogs, running by the vardos.

“Stay! Stay, Romanichals!” I called. Immediately there was the halting of hooves and waggon wheels, and voices piping like blackbirds in inquiry. There is one sure thing about the Gypsies, they can always discern a friend; and when they saw me at the roadside, they knew that it was such who called to them.

Those Gypsy travellers were of the tribe of Lovell. Almost all of them were red-haired and not very Oriental of features; only their grey eyes were the deep things of the Romany. They told me that they were horse-traders, but at seasonable times worked in the boobi-poovaw (pea fields) and the levinormengris-poovaw (hop fields). They were very ragged, all of them, the most raggle-taggle Gypsies with whom I had yet met, their tattered clothing almost like foliage covering their bodies, the cloth was so rent and torn. The shoes and boots of those who wore them were all split and misshapen with wear and patterned with mut. And yet their horses were fine animals, and their dogs excellent also, and all looked well-fed. Some of the younger women wore ear-ings and necklets of glass beads shining upon their tawny throats. The juvels (wives) had bauro diklows (shawls) of cotton crossed over their breasts. The men all wore caps or billy-cock hats, blue and green; the Romany mush (man, gypsy slang) likes well his hat.

I told the Gypsies that I would bring them some hoben (food supplies) to help feed them on the road. I returned to the house and Florence Mahon, on whose land i was living, gave me all the loaves of bread that she had in her pantry, and cheese and dates, and I went into the vegetable garden and filled baskets with the big moon-headed cauliflowers and took apples from the trees which were in early ripeness that splendid summer of 1947. My heart was singing as I filled the baskets, for the Gypsies were back with me again.

The apples and the cauliflowers the Gypsies began to feast upon there at the roadside, reserving for their evening meal the other foods that I brought to them. They ate the raw vegetable produce with quick crunchings of their strong jaws and magnificent teeth, eating in the manner of ponies, biting large portions out of the crisp cauliflowers and consuming the big apples in but three or four bites. I too like to eat my food raw and without formality, and I was made glad in the watching of the Gypsies. I was caused to think of the gawjes, of the civilized, sitting away from the open air and the sun at their house or restaurant tables, eating prily their oven cooked foods with their unnatural steel implements: and I knew that the Gypsy way was the best.

As the Gypsies ate, they talked with me on the old subject about which Gypsies almost always gossip when meeting with friendly strangers: the life of the road, and the relentless persecution of the Romanies by the gawje, with the hated force of muskeros (police) acting on their behalf. One elderly woman with her grey-streaked hair hanging over her shoulders in two thick plaits braided with string, and wearing a purple cross-over scarf over a rent black satin blouse tucked into a blue skirt, sun-faded almost white, declared to me:
“The gawjes are a-tryin’ to drive we Romanies orf the drom (road) an orf the face o’ the earf. Pushin’ we there, a-drivin’ we orf’ere, plaguin’ we wiv hidentity cards an’ reshin’ books, but this I knows an’ all we travellers knows, there’s bin travellers since the beginnin’ of the world and there’ll still be travellers at th’ world endin’.” There was great force in the Gypsy’s voice and her grey eyes were wonderful in their expression, like maybe would look the eyes of an old eagle when man sought to drive the great bird from its eyrie. And the long, fierce nose of the woman was stiffened like a plunging beak. he spat from her mouth, savagely, a tough piece of cauliflower.

“There will always be travelers,” I said.

Soon the roadway was littered with apple scraps and white shreds of discarded hard strips of cauliflower. The feast was ended.

In that roadside meeting it was the women who did the talking; the children standing in silence, listening with interest to all that was spoken, and gazing at me steadfastly with their bright eyes, examining every detail of me. The men were busying themselves watering their horses with pailfuls of spring water taken from closeby where we were standing. This was the first time that I had been made away are the presence of a spring there. I did, though, know previously of the remarkable knowledge possessed by the Romanies concerning the long-forgotten water springs of the English countryside. Like the Arabs, the prize highly spring water, and they know well its remarkable powers in the curing of ailments, of their own families and their animals, especially disease of the eyes and skin. They always drink spring and brook water in preference to corporation tap water with its disgusting flavour of chlorine chemicals and its absolute lifelessness, the Gypsies declaring that such water causes sickness of the zee – the human heart.

One of the women elders then asked me to allow her to read my hand. That Gypsy proved to be one of those prophetic Romany fortune-tellers with whom one meets very seldom. She gave me her name as Clara, and said that she was a Lee by birth. She was certainly an accomplished palmist, and would have done well for herself financially if she had chosen to settle in a town kair (house) instead of travelling in the countryside. But the very nature of her clothes and the weathered appearance of her dark-skinned, wrinkled face, her mobile body, proved her to be a deep-hearted incurable traveller. Keeping her keen grey eyes concentrated upon my left hand, she spoke her palmistry pieces in quick mumble-jumble of trite remarks and expressions, but here and there they were lit by flashes of remarkable truth, as if coming from another higher section of her mind. She told me much of my past life, my many accidents and injuries, my several escapes from drowning, and the tragic and violent deaths of so many members of my family. As to the future, she saw one thing only with any certainty, a long journey overseas to a foreign country, a place of wild mountains. The journey was certain to take place within a three-three days, weeks, or months. I was convinced at the time that such was impossible. I had long planned a visit to Mexico, for study of herbal medicine, but there seemed no possibility at al of that being achieved in very many months. Therefore I asked:

“Years, Clara? Three years perhaps?”

“No! An’ will be very importan’ to you, that far trav’lin. Kushto bock mi rackli (good luck my girl).”

Thus by the roadside beyond Leatherhead I learnt of my visit to Mexico, which owing to many strange circumstances did come to happen within three months. Although in truth it was not until I was beholding the wild exciting mountains of Texas on my way there, that I thought again upon the Gypsy’s words. I promised myself then that when I should meet with her further, I would load her hands with silver in recognition of her true dukkerin (fortune-telling) talents.

Clara, after talking with me awhile concerning her traveling life, of its pleasures and its difficulties, invited me into her vardo. She wished to give me a lucky mannikin for my Mexican journey, or in Romany speech – a kushto fiz. In former times many fortune-tellers had kept supplies of diminutive wooden figures and lucky shapes to give to favoured persons, at the present day those fizaws are generally of plastic. There must be an enterprising merchant making good money from the selling of plastic charms to the Gypsy fortune-tellers. Clara gave me a minute pink plastic man, which I soon lost.

Her vardo was clean and orderly, and belied her own raggle-taggle appearance. It was planned in the traditional Gypsy pattern, with the bed at the rear, with wall racks, and wood-burning stove, fitted with Chimney pipe, standing by the door on the left side. The bed could be drawn out to fill the floor space and sleep the whole family, which she told me consisted of nine persons. There were two jackdaws in a wicker cage on the floor, with big bunches of chickweed and groundsel dangling within. The Gypsy said that both birds could talk many words, and that she had exhibited them at fair grounds; they could speak Romany lavaws also. The birds, however, remained obstinately silent whilst I was in the  caravan, though Clara fed them crumbs of cheese and shreds of raw rabbit to tempt them to perform.

As I am interested in Gypsy caravans, their construction and their carvings, the Gypsy invited me to look into the other three which made up the party. They proved to be all planned as her own, and were of similar age. The final two were dirty and untidy. In the third vardo there was a cupboard place built beneath the bed, which Clara told me was for the sleeping of chauvis (children). At that time it was occupied by a large brindled greyhound, suckling seven pups of her own attractive colouring. Her eyes were big and topaz-hued and shone brilliantly in the darkness of the bed-cupboard.

A red-haired boy of about nine years, then came into the vardo; he had been one of the interested child-audience gathered outside on the roadway. Clara said that he was her nephew, and the child told me that his name was Danny-boy. On my asking him if the greyhound puppies possessed names, he gave them to me in a way which made a little song:

 

Ruby an’ Brick an’ Queen,

Lark, Lassie an’ Dream;

-an’ lil Sorry.

 

“Why Sorry?” I questioned him. “That’s a strange name now to call a dog.”

“Well look at ‘im,” said Danny-boy. And he tugged one puppy away from the bitch’s teats, and held it in his brown hands so that I could look well upon it.

It was certainly the wreckling of the litter, miserably small.
“Sorry lil’ thing, ain’t ‘e, Miss. ‘Is mam’s sorry for it, I is, an’ us all is.”
“I too!” I said.

The Gypsy boy smiled. “Like a lil’ mouse-us (mouse) ain’t ‘e now.”

“Yes, Danny-boy,” I agreed.

What a charming lad he was, with his tousled red hair, falling in locks like a coronal of poppy flowers around his round brown face. His mouth was beautiful with its curved lips gleaming and brilliant as fresh-blucked cherries. He wore the delphinium blue dicklo knotted in correct Gypsy style round his stout young neck.

Observing my appraising eyes, cara then informed: “Danny plays the bosh (fiddle) then, he’s a reg’lar boshomengro.”

On hearing the woman’s words, the boy with despatch returned the greyhound puppy to the watchful bitch, and then clambered quickly on to the bed, and took down from a shelf a child’s-size fiddle, which I had not before noticed.
“Me dad made it,” he told me with pride. “This be orf a gry’s (horse’s) tail,” he further informed, pointing to the bow.

I paced a piece of silver on the fiddle, a Welsh Gypsy custom, meaning a blessing on the fiddler and his music. The chal knew the meaning, for he commenced to make music forthwith.

Clara seized my arm and indicated Danny-boy, she speaking in awe as if of a master musician. “Watch ‘ow ‘e trembles,” she bade me. The lad began to shake violently his sturdy body as he played.

“can the lady see me tremble?” he asked.
I nodded my head in affirmation.

It was not very accomplished playing but surprisingly loud for such a small instrument, and it brought most of the Gypsies of the party thronging around the caravan hatch-door. Soon they were all clapping their hands, slapping their thighs, and stamping their feet on the roadway, in accompaniment to the music. I did not recognize any of the tunes that the boy fiddler was paying, and when Clara indicated the farth to me, standing now at the door with the others I asked the man whether the tunes were Romany, as I knew them not. He said that they were not so, but pieces form the hopping fields.

All this had been taking place at the roadside of the main Leatherhead road to Dorking, with busses and cars hastening by. The waiting horses were becoming restive, and soon it was time for the Gypsies to continue on their journey. The men pulled leafy branches off the trees and paced them upon the water in the buckets, to prevent this from splashing out when they swayed beneath the vans. I brought more apples for the travellers, and Florence provided some picture-books for the children. I cut the finest rose in the garden, one of deepest crimson, and gave this to the young boshomengro to wear. I was sad at the departure of those warm-hearted vivid people.

Danny-boy stood at the vardo wooda (door) playing now a Romany tune, the popular “Jalling of the Drom” (taking to the road). This I have heard payed and whistled many a time by various families of Romanies, but never any words other than: “Jallin’ the drom, jallin’ the drom, we be jallin’ the drom”. Also again those were all the words that came shrilling back to me from the voices of the Gypsy children and some adults, chantering to the fiddle music. There was the other music, too, of horses’ hooves and turning wheels as the Gypsies travelled onwards to the hop fields.

Pages 64-74

AGW photo page 64

There were a further seven unrelated horse-traders, three Irish and for from Tyneside. The owner of the lodging-house had told the men of my long journey on Greensleeves, and they were wanting to learn of my ride and to know why, at that late hour, I was not sleeping away the riding fatigue. Concerning my lack of tiredness, I did not tell the men that I had drunk nothing, not even water, since the evening before my ride, and that I did not intend to end the fast until I was back home on the morrow evening. Such treatment kept my mind very wakeful – I having no wish to miss any of the excitement of the fair. My cure for any limb-tiredness which might be felt on the morrow was to be a swim in the river.

The horse-traders then said, that as I was not tired at that hour, could they stay and talk with me for a while. I was very happy at their suggestion, and we stayed in conversation until after two o’clock of the morrow morning. Our talk was of the rearing and the trading of dogs and horses, and especially concerning all the “tricks o’ the trade” practiced by dealers in selling off of unfit stock: and we were agreed that owing to present-day unnatural rearing methods of animals of all kinds, a very large percentage were unfit. We agreed also that the nastiness of the spirit of many humans made vicious the animals in their care, and thus were created the great legion of spiteful, biting dogs, and kicking, bucking, rearing and biting horses. Bulls, too, were much affected by the character of the humans who had the management of them.

We talked long concerning the “doctoring up” of horses, and especially the known Gypsy art for this. For we agreed that the long persecuting of the Gypsy by the gawje had bred dislike and contempt for the gawje in the hearts of the majority of Gypsies, and it was understandable that they should be glad to triumph over their persecutors. But if a Gypsy gave you his friendship there be no better person from whom to buy a horse or dog, for the Romanies have inherited “an eye” for animals which is seldom equalled by other races, and they are usually very knowledgeable as to where to secure the best animals. Also, if a Gypsy could not break a horse or dog of bad ways, no other man could do so. Amongst the doctoring tricks that we discussed, was the exciting of flow, sluggish horses, before sale, by giving draughts of alcoholic mixtures, together with anise and ginger. The covering over of old sores and scars with various dyes and pastes – walnut stain and pine resin being very effective for this, also black-lead; and the gumming of hair shavings on to the scars of broken-kneed horses – pogado chongaw. The use of lard for broken-winded horses – pogado bavalengros – or lard mixed with camphor dust, to ease the breathing, fed in balls just before the sale of the animal. Likewise for bavalengros the tying of a little aloes under the horse’s tongue, to affects its breathing beneficially until sold. For glandered horses – nokengroes – there is the plugging of the nostrils with rag steeped in a mixture of alcohol and powdered camphor, the plugs on removal bringing with them a flow of mucus and pus, the nostrils next syringed out, the animal then appearing clean, temporarily. An alternative method is the plugging of the nostrils with nettles, the famous pepper chor of the Romanies, and much used in their medicine for legitimate as well as illegitimate purposes, which likewise will bring with it a great flow of accumulated nasal discharge, and will leave the horse with a healthful appearance for short duration but sufficient to effect the sale. Then there is the cruel trick of laming all four legs of a horse if one limb be lame in order to make it walk evenly when being shown for sale. And so we talked on for hours.

I gave the company an account of the training by a Gypsy friend of a considered untrainable Person greyhound (Saluki) dog. The dog when unleashed would always bolt away like a mad horse, and would not return for days or allow himself to be caught until he chose. They Gypsy friend was Jim Vincent, a Kentish Romany, one of the family of big horse-traders, possessing large numbers of animals, and who traveled the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex. I promised Jim that I would present him with the hound, which was approaching two years of age and was a fine show specimen, for he assured me that he could train it in short time, and I was sorry for the present life of the dog in kennels in Yorkshire, because always imprisoned and never able to enjoy free exercise in the fields. But I was very doubtful of the Gypsy being successful with so difficult a case. Jim, however, was entirely confident of achievement, he saying that no animal on this earth had beaten him yet. He said to me: “ I will show you well the way of a Gypsy with a dog, we does things different to the gawjes.”

The Saluki dog made the joruney from Yorkshire to Surrey. The present owners were pleased to part with the animal. He arrived in a crate labelled like a wild tiger, with countless warnings as “on no account permitting the dog to escape from the crate.” I fed and exercised the Saluki and then walked him to the Vincent caravans, arriving there at midnight. Jim was delighted with the hound, his eyes became starry when he beheld it. The training then commenced. Evening after evening the Gypsy would visit me in the hut by the river, in which I was living, take a meal with me, and discuss the progress made with the taming of the Saluki. Then, on the tenth day since he had possession of the dog, Jim called in the morning to ask me to visit that noon the camping place of his family, where he would be awaiting me together with his Saluki – fully trained. “Do you believe it?” he asked. And I said: “You are a very truthful person always with me, but this does seem difficult to believe, because, like you, I know the natures of animals; but I shall see well this afternoon.”

I duly visited the Gypsy camp and there, unleashed, by the fire, lay the wild Saluki. The hound got up to greet me, for I had with me my own trained Saluki. I then went for a walk over the fields with Jim and his brother, and throughout the walk the unleashed dog followed perfectly, close by his master. and if momentarily the dog did go out of sight amongst the bushes, he returned instantly when Jim whistled. The dog had been trained not by fear, but my the powerful will of the Gypsy, a will which is totally unlike anything known to the non-Gypsy, in its fierce power of concentration and unbending purpose. Jim admitted that he had trained the hound by the force of his will and by instilling into the dog’s mind respect for him as its master and also the knowledge of his benevolence: the same mental influence that the bitch experts over her young whelps and which commands their obedience. The Gypsy further instructed me: “You must get deep into an animal’s mind, be it dog or horse. And give your own mind unsparingly to the training work. Think on nothing else but the training and how you must not allow the animal to have its own way over your own. Keep the animal with you as much as possible, day and night, and between training times give it all the love that you have got.” The Saluki had certainly loved the Gypsy; for when by the fire it had placed its body upon its master, keeping as close as possible to the object of its love. A half-year later John Bouverie of the News Chronicle met Jim Vincent with the Saluki that I had given to him, and wrote in that journal an account of the training of the dog.

My audience became interested in Jim, and they asked me to tell them more concerning him. I told how strong he was, and brown and rugged -and rather like a bear- and yet a most warm-hearted and loyal friend, who would take off his coat and make you wear it if you were walking with him and the wind blew cold. One of my favourite English Gypsies indeed. I told also how knowledgeable he was concerning the life of the fields and woods, and how he had taught me many things concerning the wild animals. I told to the horse-traders two things that I had learnt from Jim. That oftentimes a squirrel, when in great haste to reach the ground or when being chased, will form itself into a supple ball and hurl itself from the tree-top, arranging in the falling to land upon a heap of leaves or into a bracken bed. Jim once saw a squirrel loose its life by falling recklessly and failing to reach a suitable landing place: the animal’s brains were beating out. He told concerning snakes, that slain snakes will never part fully with their life spirit whilst the sun remains in the sky. Almost always life will flicker on in some part of the body until sundown. Even though the body should be cut into countless pieces, sundown only will bring complete death. It is at such time that they mate of the slain snake will go forth in search of the slayer, seeking to avenge the death.

The men then told many stories concerning the ways of animals, especially concerning horses and dogs. The conversation was all enjoyment for me; very pleasing was the music in the Irish speech, and also the low-pitched burr of the Tynesider is always pleasant to hear.

Furthermore, not one of the men was drunk, the owner of the lodging-house had given warning without reason. The horse-trading on the morrow required all of the men’s attention and wits, they could not afford drunkenness. But once the horses were sold, then would come celebration in beer and whisky. I knew well that there would be no pleasant talking with the men on the morrow night, alcohol would be in the power in the lodging-house: thus I was the more appreciative of the present night’s and early morning’s entertainment. We, by the coming of the dawn, had talked ourselves into silence; tobacco fumes made a fog in the parlour. The men then went to their beds. The trader Jarrett promised me a lesson in horse-grooming if I would meet him at the stables before eight o’clock of the morning. I kept the meeting, and saw the most skilful horse-grooming that I have beheld.

Before eight o’clock I had also visited Greensleeves, finding her in excellent health and very well rested. I also had my swim in the river. After the horse-grooming I went my way back to the fair.

Yesternight’s promise of a day of sun-heat had been fulfilled, and the sun burnt down upon the thronging people and the traders bringing in their horses from the nearby grazing places. George and Tom Nicholson were on the moor, leading in the team of Shire horses which they had for sale. There was intense activity everywhere, so much passion and excitement, I thought in order to get money into human pockets, and for little reason else; although I knew also that there was a form of trading lust that got into men’s blood and caused them to trade things for the sheer excitement of the bargaining and of the gambling as to whether or not they would achieve a “strike”. Level bargaining, one object for another, without the exchange of money, was known to the Gypsies as a “chop”.

I derived much pleasure from watching the horses being brought on to the fair ground, all finely groomed, manes and tails streaming in the breeze like long summer grass, with wondrous silken sheen, or elaborately parted and coiled as the young fronds of ferns. The majority of the horses were decorated with fancy harness of brilliant colours, brass ornaments, ribbons in rosettes or streamers, bunches of flowers – especially buttercups and daisies and the fame of corn poppies. The decorations help to attract the eyes of the thronging buyers. A cry of excitement came from the crowd when the Irish horses came in; a great company of them, and certainly amongst the most beautiful of all the horses gathered there. “Ere come the Oirish!” shouted the crowd. I saw again all of my friends of last night, and they waved their riding-whips to me, and doffed caps, and laughed: they were very proud of their fine animals and excited at the admiration of the people. How gracefully they rode their shining steeds, and how clean-faced and gallant those horsemen looked.

It seemed a long time before the Nicholson brothers came from the moor, leading their great shaggy-legged horses. As I watched them I was reminded again as to how much those men were a portion of the dales; the firm tread of their broad feet, and the form of their powerful bodies towering like the Pennine heights themselves: of Pennine rock and the rushing waters of the becks they were made, so keen and bright were the eyes of the two brothers, and their brown hands holding so skilfully the prancing giant Shire horses. George was leading a young mare white as elder blossom, and the horse-dealers praised loudly the pawno gry as she walked past them. That June morning George looked like a Gypsy chief as he led forward his white horse. It was a fated thing that two years later that skilled horse-breaker should be trampled upon by a wild horse, his face crushed and disfigured and many toes broken.

Soon the Gypsies and other traders were at their bikking, mostly individual selling, each Gypsy or Gypsy family selling his own horses. But in one area of the fair ground an auction sale  -biknomus- was being held, and the excitement there was beyond the telling. Now in all parts of the fair site the old, old scene of the trading of horses, was being enacted again, as it had been performed at al the horse fairs of England and elsewhere, since the beginning of horse selling, and also on that April evening at Thiernswood when the Nicholsons had traded Greensleeves.

Firstly there was the showing of the horses. The flicking of long-corded whips under bellies and around legs and then the racing of the animals to and fro down the lanes made by the crowds on the fair ground. Sweating men clutching at the reins of the horses that they were running, and shouting as they ran the old trading cry of “Hi! Hi! Hi!” or “Hep! Hep!” – as used also by the cattle drovers of long ago. Screaming horses with frothing jaws, excited – and often enough terrified – by the stinging whips so skilfully applied, and the thunder of the voices issuing from the human bodies which formed barricades on all sides. The ending of a “trade”, hand slapped down upon hand, palm to palm, and the crowd shouting their pleasure at the completion of the deal. Often enough no money is paid at the time of the “trade”, the mere slapping of palm upon open palm being sufficient to register the sale of the animal. No account need be rendered, or the deal recorded in writing, often enough the traders know not how to write other than their own names. Let a trader dishonour a hand-sealed agreement and he will be scorned for ever by his fellow horse-dealers, and chased off every fair ground on which he is recognized.

When bargaining is in progress then the crowd is at its happiest, the men swarming as bees around spilled honey, as they crowd upon the vendor and the prospective buyer, and urge on with shouts and laughter the progress of the trading.

A “trade” made in such an atmosphere is a good one, and likely to bring kushto bock (good fortune) to the new owner of the horse. There are many superstitions in horse-dealing. Gypsies especially do not like to take over an animal which has been wept upon by the owner reluctant to part with it; nor do they like animals which have occasioned angry words during the trading, they consider that such animals carry kawlo bock (bad luck).

The din and the clamour of the trading went on without cease. Dogs got under the hooves of the horses being galloped to show off their good paces and their fitness and humans were knocked down and sometimes injured. Men and horses sweated beneath the broiling heat of the sun flaring down upon the hillside. Again there were the predominating scents of the drifting wood-smoke, warm grass-filled horse dung, and now new scents from the tilt-carts loaded with green hillocks of scythed grass for horse-feed, which the Gypsies culled from the roadsides and brought back to the fair ground in endless procession, and als there came from the near common the perfume of blossoming gorse, quickened by the fire of the sun.

As the morning hours lengthened towards noon, so likewise increased the power of the sun in the cloudless sky coloured now the dark solid blue of a stretch of cornflowers. The breeze died and the atmosphere was breathless. It was one of the days of fiercest sun-heat that I had experienced in the North Country. Flies sang in hissing choruses around the tail-lashing, mane-tossing horses; and there was other song, far sweeter, the fluting of the skylarks. Those brown birds thronged the sky above the gorse-gold common, where the horses then being paced for sale had grazed through the past night and where the stout waggon-hauling Galloways still remained. In lilting rhythm the skylarks soared and fell through the gorse-scented air. Dordi! Dordi! what a heart-stirring world it was.

Romany racklis (girls) wore wild roses in their blue-black hair, or the mauve scabious flowers, named the Gypsy rose. The chals (lads) too had adorned themselves with flowers, pale dog-roses tucked into hat and cap bands or lapels, and other gaudier blossoms, pansies, peonies, geraniums and such-like, taken from wayside gardens. Fair-time was the time of love for many a Gypsy youth and girl; dowries of horses and china, dogs and clothing, and sometimes vardos, were discussed by the parents. The young lovers had their own discussions, and went into the green heart of the woods to test their love: fern and budding heather making the best of love beds. One could feel in the air the singing happiness of the Gypsies at this fairus-time, when they could put away all the work of peg-making and basket-weaving, the gathering work in the fields, and the trials of road travel and harrying by the gravers (police) and could enjoy the golden hours of love-making.

I met again with my Gypsy friends from the previous night, and inspected their horses and dogs in the daylight. The Gypsy dogs were mostly lurchers, but I met with a brace of pure-bred Scottish deerhounds, and there were some pure-bred dandie dinmonts, and many greyhounds. The happiest thing for Gypsy dogs is that they share intimately in the lives of their owners; they live in the vardos and tans along with the family, feed with them, sleep with them, play with the brown babies, hunt with the youths and the elders,and poach skilfully and silently for their masters the lands of the gawje.

From all the multitude of Gypsies whom I met during my night and morning at Appleby, I retained two portraits which were especially impressive. There was one Gypsy man of unusual personality and remarkable swarthiness, a spectacular rider also. Long, flowing hair, black as charcoal, falling in locks over his forehead so as almost to hide his brilliant eyes – black as the hair. His skin timber-brown, though withal ruddy as is the bark of the Scots pine. Lips thick and heavy, almost negroid, and a great Semitic nose dominating his face. He was dressed in a long frock-coat of midnight blue, green trousers and sky-blue dicklo. His brown hands, long, slim-fingered, beautiful, beringed with silver; brandishing two whips, one a mere flicking crop but the other a great coaching whip, with long, embossed, silver handle, which flashed in the sunlight. That Gypsy stood out in curious and picturesque appearance from all other Gypsies at the fair. Two years later I was to meet him again, and enjoy his friendship and also that of his parents and sisters. Indeed he was to be my partner at all of the later horse fairs that I visited: his name was Lawrence Wood. The other character, a very brown-faced Gypsy boy of some seven years, wearing noticeably light blue socks and green boots, a garland of marigolds around his neck, one hand gripping a length of rope to which was tied a Yorkshire terrier. His other hand held that of his father, a towering red-moustached Gypsy, with a quiff of scarlet hair -like a flame- brushed up from his broad forehead. Al the time that I observed the small Gypsy boy, he alternately kicked the terrier or hit it with the end of the rope. The father took no heed of this son’s chastisement of the dog, but frequently patted with adoring hands the child’s abundant hair which was the same hue as his own. The child rightfully could not have been checked by any bystander for ill-treatment for the dog, for at each blow or kick the terrier wagged its short tail, and then fawned in love upon its master.

Before leaving the fair I visited the site for the fortunetellers. Not to have my hand read or my future told in cards, for I do not go to the professional fortune-tellers for that Gypsy art, it being the roadside dukkerin’ of the true artist in dukkeriben that holds a fascination for me. I went to the lane of the fortune-tellers because I wanted to study in daylight the magnificence of the fardos there, of which I had seen some part on the yesternight. For those vardos were owned by the wealthy Gypsies, who hire sites at the summer holiday resorts and there ply their fortune-telling with much monetary success; many of them had traveled in France and America. The vardos mostly possessed flashy and crude sign-cards, shouting to the world of the dukkering skill of their owners, and promised perfection in the various arts of palmistry, card-telling and crystal-gazing. Through the open doors could be seen most splendid displays of china, glass and brass ornaments, but especially china, much of it old and very beautiful. The Gypsy fortune-tellers themselves were mostly opulently and gaudily dressed, adorned with the silken head-scarves coming low over brow of the traditional theatre Gypsy, dicklos, long-skirted dresses, and wearing many ornaments, ear-rings, bracelets, and necklaces -especially chains. The majority of the women were fat and white-fleshed. The vardos were almost all motor-drawn, of modern design, and possessed paraffin cooking stoves! There were over thirty fortune-tellers’ caravans at Appleby that year. I walked slowly by the site, watching all, but knew no wish to stay long there. I well preferred my raggle-tagge Gypsies, with their horse-drawn houses, or tents carried upon their backs or on tilt-carts, with their accompanying dogs and their bantams, their odd and picturesque possessions, lean and brown persons, scented with wood-smoke, wild flowers their ornaments, and with the romance of the open road and the countryside over which they wandered all upon them.

The time had come for me myself to take again to the road, it being after midday when I visited the place of the fortunetellers. I knew that Greensleeves would return at a slower pace than the one that she had made to Appleby. George had given me directions for a new route back to Helaugh, and I was wanting to follow it, especially as it was to be lone moorland for most of the forty miles. Much of the route was a rough road, George had warned me, but of rare beauty.

I collected Greensleeves from the farm, and was helpfully supplied with a new sackful of oats from there. And soon I was away, riding into the golden sun-glare over the hills, Appleby town behind me, and memories of its horse fair thronging in my mind as many as the larks rising and falling over the gorse common.