ROCKERING TO THE GORJIOS
British Romany Gypsies and Travellers speak their views in the early 1970s
Conversations with Gypsies
in the early 1970s
In the early nineteen seventies
British Romany Gypsies speak of their
hopes, fears and aspirations
Compiled and edited by Jeremy Sandford
The year is 1972:
In a book addressed to non-Gypsies,
British Romany Gypsies speak of their problems, hopes and aspirations
Compiled and edited by
Press Reviews of Earlier Editions
‘Mr Sandford’s plea is urgent.’ The Observer
‘In “Gypsies” the shock warning is that unless there is a change in legislation, the Gypsy community, harrassed by obnoxious policemen and an ignorant public, will be destroyed.’ The Times
‘This collection of documents brings vividly before us, often on the same page or in the same sentence, the astonishing vigour of Romany culture, its pride and colour, its wit and tenacity and, alongside that, the “squalour of rubbish tips and refuse dumps ... the endless series of evictions ... the sprawl and concrete of our local authority sites” which now forms its real environment.’ New Society
‘The Gypsies have a powerful advocate in Jeremy Sandford, the author of “Cathy Come Home” and “Edna, the Inebriate Woman”.’ The Yorkshire Post
‘Sandford skilfully reveals the Gypsy at what is probably the moment of his greatest threat.’ The Sunday Times
‘As a work of research it is ideal.’ The Evening News
Jeremy Sandford grew up at Eye Manor, a historic house in Herefordshire. He has lived most of his life in the Welsh border country. His fascination for our Romany Gypsy population was awakened by his grandmother Mary Carbery who herself travelled in a horse-drawn vardo and spoke Romany.
He was educated at Eton and Oxford. His film Hotel de Luxe was the subject of a notorious attempted court injunction; his television play Cathy Come Home focused public attention on the plight of Britain’s homeless, won many awards and played a part in the initiation of Shelter. Recently it was voted the most popular TV play ever transmitted. His Edna, the Inebriate Woman won four awards, including the Critics Award and the Writers Guild Best Play of the Year. Since those early successes he has led a busy life as writer, musician,broadcaster and journalist.
He wrote Synthetic Fun, Down and Out in Britain, In Search of the Magic Mushroom, Tomorrow’s People and Smiling David and was the editor of Romano Drom, a newspaper written by and for Britain’s Gypsies.
Influenced by the Findhorn Foundation and by Green and New Age philosophies, he hosts holistic educational courses at his home, Hatfield Court, in the Welsh border country, and works as a musician at the music and dance summer camps, such as Rainbow Circle, Rainbow 2000 and Dance Camp Wales.
An executive member of the Gypsy Council, he has recently published ‘Songs from the Roadside’, a book and audio cassette celebrating contemporary Romany Gypsy songs. He is director of a film commissioned by the Gypsy Council, shot at the Stow-on-the-Wold Gypsy horse fair and in other locations, and celebrating traditional British Gypsy songs and music.
First published in Great Britain with the title ‘Gypsies’
by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd 1973
ABACUS edition published in 1975
by Sphere Books Ltd
30/32 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8JL
Copyright Ó Jeremy Sandford 1973
Hertford University Press edition published in 1999
All rights under the Copyright and Patents Act 1987
asserted by Jeremy Sandford
Also by Jeremy Sandford
‘Songs from the Roadside’
book and cassette presenting traditional
Romany Gypsy songs and music
video celebrating Gypsy music,
horse fairs and culture
All available from
Cathy Come Home (Pan and Marion Boyars)
Edna, the Inebriate Woman (Pan and Marion Boyars)
Synthetic Fun (Penguin)
In Search of the Magic Mushroom (Peter Owen and Sphere Abacus)
Smiling David (Marion Boyars)
Prostitutes (Secker and Warburg and Abacus)
Down and Out in Britain (Peter Owen and Sphere)
Mary Carbery’s West Cork Journal (Lilliput)
But what did they fight for and why did they die?
For freedom to wander around.
But where can we wander; there’s no place to go
For they’re closing our camping grounds down.
From ‘The Hawker’s Lament’
By Duncan Williamson,
A Traveller from Fife
by Charlie Smith
Living in Trailer Caravans:
Prince Nathaniel Petulengro Lee
Mr Tom Lee
Mrs Geraldine Price
Mr Jim Riley
Mr Johnny Sheridan
Living in Tents:
Mr Russell Bilton
Mr William Merchison
Mrs Ethel Anderson
Mr and Mrs Humphries
Living in Houses:
Mr Jimmy Penfold
Mr and Mrs Alec Stewart
Mr Francis Barton
Mr Tommy Lee
Mr Joe Cooper
Living in Horse-Drawn Caravans
Mr Ezra Price
Mr Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors
The Story Brought Up to Date
NOTE: This page to be altered and expanded
Notes and Acknowledgements
My thanks to the many members of Britain’s Gypsy community who have helped with this book, both those whose conversations are included and all those others who helped in other ways.
The conversations here presented were recorded with the help of a tape recorder or from notes made at the time. In the section featuring Johnny Sheridan I was given help by Ivan Geffen and Barry Roberts of Walsall. In the section featuring Jim Riley I was able to draw in part on the transcript of a conversation between him and Phillip Donnellan. The Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors section presents his actual account of his childhood and some of his adult life, originally written in prison notebooks.
George Marriott was extremely helpful while I was writing the book, and so were all the many people, both Gypsies and non-Gypsies, who were involved in the production of Romano Drom, the Gypsy newspaper of which I was editor. Dr Donald Kenrick and Dr Thomas Acton helped weed out inaccuracies.
[acknowledgements for illustrations to follow]
List of Illustrations
[This page to be supplied later]
Part of Djelem, Djelem, claimed by some
as the Anthem of the Gypsy Nation
We travel on, travel on
Along the eternal road
Everywhere meeting happy Gypsies
With their tents on happy roads
Oh men of the Gypsies and young men of the Gypsies
Now is the time, Gypsies arise
If we act now
We can achieve many things
Oh men of the Gypsies and young men of the Gypsies
Maladilem bahtale romenca
E carenca bahtale dromenca
A Romale, a chevale
Ake vjama usti Rom akana
Men hudasa mishto kaj kerasa
A Romale, a chevale
Ah faith, what would I give, this very tormenting minute, to be able to sit and have my natural freedom like the fox, badger, and partridge. I can only just memorise what it was like to have the ould barrel-top wagon pulled by the side of a grassy road and a clear spring river running like quicksilver along by the side of the ditch, and the rainbow and brown trout showing off, jumping out of the river as if they had not enough freedom in it.
Mr Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors
Chairman of the Gypsy Council
[copy to follow]
‘Rockering to the Gorjios’ means, in the dialect of the Romany language used in Britain, ‘Speaking our minds to the non-Gypsies’. Travellers spoke to me in the early seventies so that through me they could address the non-Gypsy (Gorjio) population.
My trip was arranged through the extensive contacts of the Gypsy Council who asked me to undertake it. It was a privilege to travel through England and Scotland, meeting these Romanies, Tinkers and Pavees.
Those were times of great change and challenge for Britain’s Gypsies. The Caravan Sites Act of 1968 had made it compulsory for councils to build sites for Travellers ‘residing in or resorting to their areas’, thus acknowledging their commitment to Gypsies and their unusual lifestyle; and the important ways in which they contributed to the community economically.
The original euphoria among Gypsies which followed the passing of this law was now tempered with disillusion, as it became clear that councils were being very slow in building sites. Those that were built were often in bad places like former rubbish dumps, next to sewage works, or by busy roads and railways.
Gypsies using them often had to pay councils very high rents. The sites were usually surrounded by tall iron mesh fences so that they had the appearance of concentration camps. Open fires, the keeping of animals, and sorting out of scrap, essential parts of the Romany lifestyle, were almost always forbidden.
Some Travellers drew their caravans on to these sites with relief. They had had enough of harassment and evictions on the roads of Britain. Even these also experienced dread because the sites represented the end of so much that was valuable to them in the Romany lifestyle.
Meanwhile there was in progress a widespread closing of commons and ditching and dumping of roadside verges where Gypsies had traditionally parked their caravans. In an endless campaign of harassment and eviction Gypsies were being hounded and driven from pillar to post till many were demoralised and desperate.
There was great public ignorance of who the Travellers were and why they are what they are. A series of laws had made the caravan or tent dwelling lives of most of them illegal.
Against these huge forces of destruction the Gypsy Council, a tiny organisation, sought to achieve a better deal for Travellers. Gypsies who were prominent in the Gypsy Council at this time were Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors, Tom Lee, Jimmy Penfold, Tom O’Doherty, Hughie Smith, Roy Wells and Fred Wood.
There were also non-Gypsies involved in a secretarial or non-executive role; Thomas Acton, Donald Kendrick, Grattan Puxon and myself. For the Gypsy Council I edited a quarterly illustrated newspaper Romano Drom (Gypsy Road or Destiny) which aimed to serve the Gypsy community. Most Gypsies were still non-literate, so I arranged for there to be as many pictures as possible in Romano Drom.
Members of the Gypsy Council were worried and indignant at the extent of public ignorance about who the Gypsies are. Gypsies throughout the country found it frustrating that, since most of them had not experienced the Gorjio educational process, they did not have the literacy skills or jargon with which to communicate to Gorjios the indignities they were suffering and the gravity of their situation.
So it came about that I was given the important task of travelling round Britain, listening to what Travellers had to say, writing it down, arranging for it to be published, so that representatives of the Traveller community could actually rocker to Gorjios.
Estimates suggested that there were about 50,000 Gypsies in Britain at that time. Any estimate was likely to be wildly on the low side as, for fear of persecution, many families suppressed the information that they had Gypsy blood, and many of the tent and caravan dwelling Gypsies intentionally made it hard to find them.
About half of the Gypsy population were thought to be living in houses. Of those not in houses, the majority were living in modern trailer caravans. These were often custom built, extremely exotic in style, and with poetic names like Westmorland Star.
A government report estimated that about 2,000 Traveller families were illegally parked on roadside verges and in country lanes. Another 2,000 or so were on commons or wasteland. Disused pits and quarries, old airfields, yards, carparks, were other frequent parking places.
As well as living in trailer caravans, twelve percent of these families had huts, six percent had horse-drawn caravans, four percent had tents. Eight percent, mainly in Scotland, lived in these latter places exclusively.
It was intended that those I talked to would be roughly representative of the Traveller population as a whole, in terms of age, sex, whether Romany or Tinker or Pavee, where they lived and what sort of accommodation they lived in. We were not entirely successful. I wish, for example, that there had been more women among those I talked to.
To arrive at a Gypsy camp-site in the evening; to pick across the rubble or mud towards the caravans where they stand snug and inviting, lit through their pink vinyl curtains by yellow Calor gas; to see the pretty Gypsy girls returning home with their gleaming jugs full of the evening’s supply of water; to see the men come back in their huge lorries piled high with scrap, lurching back towards their home; to see smoke begin to rise from the chimneys ... How often have those who are involved with Britain’s Gypsy culture felt their heart turn over at this moment, perhaps with some stirring from inherited memories of the time when we were all nomadic, or perhaps with the realisation that ultimately in this life nothing is fixed; there are as many lifestyles possible as there are people around to live them. That is one side of the picture ...
To be with a group of Gypsies squatting and sitting by an open fire where a huge tureen of stew is brewing, drinking bottled beer, passing the evening in conversation and song, watching where, propped against the embers, a battery-powered portable television is transmitting a chat show. That is another side of the picture ...
The child needlessly crushed to death during an eviction at Dudley; the three children who died during an eviction at Walsall; the two children burned to death in a tent in Lanarkshire on the day that their grandfather was killed by a car; the many other Gypsy children who died not through anything as simple as an eviciton but because the Gypsy life is hard; that is another side of the picture ...
There are many Gypsy people who die unnecessarily. Proportionately, at the time when this book was written, for every seven people who lived beyond the age of sixty-five, there would be only one Gypsy.
A few years before this book was originally written, extermination had been suggested as a solution to the ‘Gypsy problem’ by a Midlands councillor, and as a solution to various problems by a Chief of Police. Now, just as much as when the book was first written, it is important to ask how many non-Gypsy people have actually talked to Gypsies, as opposed to talking at them? Many decisions have been and are now being made for them about how they should live or be. And yet, until more dialogue has taken place between the ‘settled’ population and them, it may well be arrogant for British law-makers to think that they know the answers.
Some of the conversations that follow seem to me to be redolent with the smell of wood-smoke, the scent of the grassy borders of our twisting country lanes; these things that used to be so much a part of the Gypsy life. But other sections of the book reflect the other side of contemporary Gypsy life, the squalour of the rubbish tips and refuse dumps to which Gypsies often find themselves driven, the sprawl and concrete of our local authority sites, and the evictions that still make horrible the lives of many Travellers.
Gypsies have rejected much of the non-Gypsy culture, not in an intellectual way but instinctively and always. There are many things in this book from which non-Gypsies should be able to learn. Many people are thinking of how an alternative society could be created, and it is worth noting that the Gypsies have had an alternative society of their own for centuries, a society which intermeshes with ordinary society, but which is also different in almost every way. Those who are discontented with existing available lifestyles may find many things in these conversations that are inspiring. I know that I did.
‘Travellers’ is the name by which they like best to call themselves. They also like the name of ‘Rom’, short for ‘Romany’. The closest many have ever got to anywhere suitable to go is in the concept of Romanestan, that where a Gypsy happens to be standing at some particular time, that is where his nation is; small consolation as police and security strongmen drag Gypsy homes yet once again through the mud, or arrange for their enclosure once again behind wire mesh, concrete poles, barbed wire. They have not heard of Romanestan.
They converse in Anglo-Romany, English liberally interspersed with Romany, Cant or Shelta words.
Most of the caravan interiors are spotlessly kept. Travellers love ornate china and highly polished silver and the caravan windows are often fringed with exotic lace curtains.
Many Travellers now deal in scrap and they recycle millions of pounds worth of scrap metal which otherwise would have to be imported.
The sorting of scrap results in the land round where they stop being often piled high with what non-Gypsies often refer to as ‘rubbish’. To Gypsies it represents their working capital; this difference in perception results in friction. Non-Gypsies usually don’t realise how much the Gypsies contribute to our economy in salvaging scrap iron. And Gypsies say that if they were given the same refuse collection facilities as non-Gypsies, then their stopping places would be clean. They point to the undeniable fact that many streets of London during a dustmen’s strike became far filthier than a Gypsy stopping place, and far quicker. They also point to our slag heaps, our factories, our telegraph poles, our slums, our urban wilderness. In their opinion Gorjios create far more pollution than they do.
Now, just as in the early 1970s, Gypsies conform in many respects to non-Gypsy standards of a hundred years ago. They marry young, die young, have large families, and infant mortality is still high.
Self help and self sufficiency are their ideals and they are contemptuous of the way that most non-Gypsies work for someone else. Their typical family unit tends to be the extended family rather than the smaller units favoured by non-Gypsies.
Many claim that they feel sick or claustrophobic when in a house and hold that the open air is healthy and ‘indoors’ is unhealthy.
They believe in living ‘for the moment’ and despise Gorjios for their concern with the mortgage, the nine-to-five job, the pension, and all the other sacrifices that many house dwellers make to the gods of security and property.
For centuries they have camped on roadsides and commons. They have been harassed so much that they are suspicious of all non-Gypsies.
Mrs Elsie Carter, a Gypsy now living in a house, writes to me: ‘I left the road when I married and now live in a council house with my husband and teenage daughters, but in spite of all the things I hold dear to me on this side of the fence, part of me remains out there with the people I grew up with ... the people who are more law-abiding than many I meet among the so-called Christian civilised people ... Members of my family are still out there somewhere fighting for survival, uneducated and unprotected by the present law ... If you are born with a label that says “Gypsy”, you are condemned from the moment that you peep at life from that tiny caravan window; you soon learn that you are different to other people and can never be a part of them or their way of life, because you’re ignorant and uneducated.’
The need for organisation amongst Travellers was the subject of an address by the much respected Gypsy Gordon Boswell at Appleby horse fair. Speaking from a loud-speaker van at this great gathering he said; ‘I’m not an educated man, but I’m a man of experience and I do know the way these things are done. Some of us have been talking this over, the travelling people who are on this ground, and we say and agree that we’re willing to form this Travelling Traders’ Association (suppose that will be the name). You may not see results right away, the first year ... but there’s got to be a beginning for all things, and this would be a great opportunity. Because you are driven from pillar to post, out of one district to another and you have no rest on the road. There is a remedy for our people; we are British subjects, we are entitled to justice. Other minorities in this country, even those who come from abroad, are looked after and their human rights respected, but you’ve got nothing, or nobody to care, or no place to live, nor even to rest. You are technically a people “of no fixed abode”. And what I would like to see is camps up and down the country. I’d like to see three types: a permanent camp where old people can go and stop and rest and be left in peace; a transit camp where you can come from one town to another and pay to go in and travel the country from north to south if you wish, and camps where you can stop in decent comfortable conditions in the winter months. I’m not thinking about you men, I’m thinking about your little children. The time has come when they should all be able to go to school and get some education.’
For those less familiar with the history of Britain’s Travellers it may be helpful to add that, originally coming like the rest of Europe’s Gypsies from the land now known as Pakistan, the Romany Gypsies arrived in Britain in the sixteenth century. In the early nineteen seventies many were being forced on to sites or into houses, but the ideal still remained to live a wandering life in a caravan.
Mixing with the Romany population there were a number of Irish Travellers or Pavees. These people are now thought by many to be descended from early pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland.
The Travellers based in Scotland, known as Tinkers, might have elements of both Romany and Pavee in their ancestry. Over the centuries they were also joined by many ordinary Scottish people who had found themselves on the wrong side in some of the battles that have wracked Scottish history, or had been evicted during the construction of grouse moors.
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