My Three Favourite… Books About Travellers

16th Nov 2012

My Three Favourite... Books About Travellers

Traditionally, nomadic culture was celebrated by musicians and storytellers. But only a few have turned to print.

In recent years, travellers have become more visible than before, though not always in the most balanced, or respectful way – due to the appeal of reality TV shows like Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and the controversial mass evictions at Dale Farm in Essex in 2011.

During the early 1990s, an American writer, Isabel Fonseca, visited Roma communities in the former Eastern bloc. Her 1995 book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, combines personal observations with historical research and investigative reporting.

The first Romani gypsies left India for Persia sometime during the 10th century. They eventually migrated to Eastern Europe. During the 16th century, Fonseca learned, Gypsies were imported into the Habsburg Empire as slaves.

It is thought that between 500,000 and 1 million Gypsies were murdered in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Under Soviet rule, travellers were encouraged to ‘assimilate’. This policy seems to have succeeded only when people were allowed to settle voluntarily.

Given this grim history of persecution, it’s understandable that many travellers remain wary of documenting their lives. Fonseca offers the cautionary tale of Papusza, the great Gypsy poet who was put on trial and disowned by the Polish Roma after allowing her work to be published in 1949.

Louise Doughty, an English author of Romani background, has written three novels about the travelling life, Fires in the Dark (2003), Stone Cradle (2006), and Whatever You Love (2010).

Stone Cradle is set in the East Anglian Fens and Lincolnshire during the first half of the twentieth century, imagining the lives of Clementina, mother of the wayward Lijah, who defies her by marrying Rose, a ‘gorjer’ (non-Gypsy.)

The story is told from the two women’s conflicting perspectives, revealing the gradual erosion of rural life. Clementina’s narrative is interwoven with Romani phrases, and alludes to Gypsy legends, such as the ‘ghost pig’ – the tale of a gentleman farmer who ordered Gypsies who had previously worked for him off his land.

Hoping for a reprieve, the men poisoned his prize pig – just enough, they thought, to make it sick, and they would then offer to cure it. But the pig died, and the Gypsies were brutally beaten by the landowner’s friends.

“The ghost pig became the thing that mothers frightened the children with,” Clementina observes. “It wasn’t the pig itself, not really…It was the bad things that are waiting for a person when all they are trying to do is live a life – and it was the badness of having poisoned the pig in the first place.”

A slew of memoirs by British travellers have been published in recent years. Some are nostalgic, while others focus on the challenges faced by Gypsies today.

Roxy Freeman, born in 1979, grew up travelling around England and Ireland in a horse-drawn caravan with her large family. While in her teens, she joined a troupe of flamenco dancers and travelled the world. Aged 22, she entered a classroom for the first time, later attaining a degree and breaking into journalism.

Her autobiography, Little Gypsy (2011), looks back on both the good and bad aspects of her unusual childhood. Her father, of Romani descent, took to the road as a teenager, while her mother came from a privileged American home.

“I have never known how to categorise myself and I dread the question, ‘Where are you from?’” Roxy admits. “We didn’t exactly fit in anywhere. We were as dark and scruffy as the Gypsies, but we didn’t have their folklore or wide, extended families. We were as free-spirited as the new age travellers, but we worked the fields or sold horses for money. We sometimes lived with other families like the convoy travellers but we had no political agenda – we were just living our lives.”

In 1986, the Freemans moved from Ireland to the U.K., and found themselves at the sharp end of harsh new laws against camping on common land, and by 1994, local councils were no longer required to provide sites at all.

Progress is slow, but travellers are making their voices heard. The spread of literacy within nomadic communities has an important role to play, and there are now several notable Gypsy authors.

Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lees début album, Ground of its Own (2012), features songs passed down by generations of Romani and tinker musicians.  “There is a difference in the songs Gypsies sing,” Lee told The Guardian. “I love the songbooks, but I decided I’d rather throw flames on what tradition is left out there. Gypsies are our Native Americans: they practise a kind of shamanism mixed with Christianity and the old beliefs.”

 Tara Hanks