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by Jeremy Sandford
‘Gypsies’, handsomely published by Martin Secker and Warburg in 1973, has become a classic in Romany Gypsy circles and wider afield. It’s one of the key books, if not the key book, to which people turn to learn more about the British Romany Gypsy population.
Consisting of self portraits by 25 British Gypsies, very favourably reviewed in The Observer, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Evening News, among many other papers, reissued in paperback by Abacus Sphere, it has become a collector’s item and in just one quarter of 1997, 125,000 pages were photocopied for use in higher education. Roughly the same in every quarter since (ALCS figures).
Now it is being reissued in a new edition by the University of Hertford Press (new title ‘Rokkering to the Gorjios’) and is being translated into Romany, Romanian, Spanish and three other European languages for sale throughout Europe in a combined operation amounting to some 50 thousand initial print run.
Now, nearly 25 years later, Sandford plans to return to the ‘Gypsies’ theme.
Just like the first time, again it is at the invitation of the Gypsies themselves. Charlie Smith, today’s Chair of the Gypsy Council, describes how he was inspired, when reading in the original ‘Gypsies’ of Sandford’s hopes that a Gypsy leader would one day appear who had been educated in the Gorjio way and could play the Gorjio politicians at their own game. Charlie recognised in those words his own destiny. He now wears a tee shirt on which is written:
Much has changed for Romany Gypsies over the last quarter century. Draconian legislation has forced many more of them off the road and, often entirely against their own wishes, onto drab Council sites or into houses. Many horse fairs, their traditional meeting places, have been closed down.
On the positive side they are becoming aware of the international aspects of their predicament; a million Romanies in the European Union are beginning to forge links with those cousins they have not seen since they left Pakistan a thousand years ago.
Sandford will talk to the same Gypsies he spoke to a quarter century ago and discover how life has changed for them. Some, of course, including the wonderful Prince Nathaniel Petulengro Lee, will be no longer available to make up the number. Sandford will present Gypsies from the younger age groups - amongst them Charlie Smith.
In his new preface and epilogue he will sketch new developments and outline hopes and policies for the future, particularly drawing on his experience in Hungary and in the Republic of Ireland where he has travelled extensively among the Romany and Traveller populations.
The original ‘Gypsies’ came about when Jeremy Sandford was asked to write it by the Gypsy Council, of which he was an executive member and for whom he was, at that time, editing their newspaper / journal ‘Romano Drom’ (Gypsy Road or Destiny).
Now he is once again an executive member of the Gypsy Council and by them has been asked to produce a new book to the same format, 25 years later.
In the previous book, twenty five Gypsies, mainly non-literate (or, as they put it, ‘not scholars’), spoke directly to the Gorjio (non Gypsy) population about the joys and challenges of being a Gypsy in contemporary Britain. To their powerful and poignant contributions, Sandford added an introduction and epilogue of social and political background, setting the scene.
Some Further Notes, from Jeremy Sandford
In June 1997 I was re-elected, after an absence of many years, to a position on the executive committee of the Gypsy Council. In August I was the prime mover in bringing over a Hungarian Gypsy band and dance troupe who met with and performed for hundreds of both Gypsies and non Gypsies. I have published ‘Songs from the Roadside, 100 Years of Gypsy Music in the West Midlands’, in the form of book and audio cassette.
My 75 minute video film ‘Spirit of the Gypsies’ has been selling very well to the Gypsy population and is to be launched in London this autumn (1999).
And once again I have become aware, via ALCS, of an immense amount of photocopying of my ‘Gypsies’ going on - really a huge amount - for use in further education which suggests a surge of interest in Romany Gypsy matters in general and my book in particular.
I think the strength of ‘Gypsies’ lies in its formula which is;
to present ‘portraits’ of some sixteen Romany Gypsies (and Tinker Travellers) in their own words and chosen to be representative of the Gypsy population of Britain as a whole.
topped and tailed with preface, introduction, and endpapers by me which speak in more general terms of the triumphs, tragedies and challenges for the Gypsy population of Britain at this time.
There have been other books in which single Gypsies speak in their own words about their lives (albeit often in a fairly romanticised version) and others which present the culture and history in an objective and generalised form, but none, as far as I know, which combine both, and in the words of a number of Gypsies.
A new ‘Gypsies’, 25 years later, will cover the same ground and enquire how the circumstances of those Gypsies in the original book have changed for good or ill.
The Gypsy Portrait Section
I will visit again those of the Gypsies I talked to before and create a series of new ‘self portraits’ showing how they feel life is treating them today.
An introduction to each ‘self portrait’ will recall the most important aspects of the previous self portraits, as a jumping off point from the past into the present.
Those Gypsies who have actually died over the last 25 years will be replaced by new ‘self portraits’ from Gypsy folk that I feel add to the balance of the book, especially those from the youngest adult generation.
This will present 15 – 25 of today’s Gypsies using their own words, representing a typical selection drawn from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (and the Irish Republic?) and from amongst those Gypsies who are wealthy and those who are poor, and from those who live in trailers, tents or houses. The question of the travelling showmen, not addressed in the previous book, might also be touched on here.
Since 1973 huge changes have taken place in the lives of British Romanies. Amongst the most important;
A large proportion have been moved on to sedentary sites. Many others have moved into houses.
The Criminal Justice Act has criminalised most of the old nomadic lifestyle.
Large numbers of non Romany New Travellers have made their appearance, taking up many of the traditional Romany ways of life, just as the Romanies were abandoning them.
There have been a number of new organisations representing Romany Gypsies and the international aspects of their predicament have become increasingly important.
What has really been going on in all these areas? The only true marker is to be found in the words of the people who have actually experienced these changes - the Romany Gypsies themselves.
In a new introduction and epilogue I will survey the celebrations, traumas and challenges attendant on being a Romany Gypsy in Britain today. I will pay special attention to Romanies active in the field of Gypsy politics; a more significant proportion than when the original book was written.
On page 241 of the paperback edition of the original Gypsies, I asked various questions and I will ask them again, enquiring what light the past quarter century may have thrown on them.
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