Dick Jones's Blog
I’m going to try the patience of my longer-term readers by posting now a slightly revised version of that account so as to provide a context for the pictures.
First of all, a poem that I wrote shortly after the funeral of Ellen Collins, a woman of extraordinary wisdom & judgement. Sadly, I can find no photos of her, although I can remember her posing with great dignity & grace for several shots amongst her collection of Crown Derby china.
BEBEE ELLEN’S MERRIPEN
Sometimes they stand in twos
and threes at the edge
of the road, arms folded,
eyes unfocussed, expecting nothing
but more of the same. Dogs bark
staccato over the pulse of generators.
Washing flickers between the vans,
random semaphore, and clocks
run slow. Sun rises over the warehouse,
sets behind the chain link fence.
But on Sunday old Aunt Helen died.
Inside her trailer mourners fidget,
watched by the gold-haloed faces
of her best Crown Derby plates.
No-one speaks but half-words form
in the gas fire’s popping, in the wind
around the broken door. Holding flowers
and a card he cannot read, brush-headed
Johnny, the boxer hero, racks tears
into a cushion. Sister Lizzie
glances sideways, gnaws a fingernail.
Traffic raises curtains in the rain
and Georgie stands where his mother
used to sit at night with her roll-ups
and her pint of tea. Arms folded
and his eyes unfocussed, he dreams
awake, pondering atavistic visions
of the fires of Little Egypt,
of the briar and the gorse,
of slower tides than these
that pull us all from history
and into the new lands.
*AUNT ELLEN’S DEATH in Anglo-Romani, the dialect of Britain's Gypsies.
THE YATELEY GYPSIES
My interest in Gypsies has its origins in pure romance. Many years ago I picked up a book called The Wind on the Heath in a second-hand bookshop. It was an anthology of historical writings about Gypsies & within a few pages I was entirely seduced. The depiction of a raffish, swarthy, inscrutable people living not within but at the edge of society, sleeping out under the stars, poaching in the greenwood, speaking an exotic tongue represented a heady vision of freedom & self-determination & breathed new life into the fading utopian dreams of the early ‘70s.
When, eventually, I put the books aside, took courage & encountered the real thing by walking onto an illegal site at Yately a few miles from my home in Farnham, Surrey, the trappings of myth fell away. Well, maybe not entirely: the raffishness, the inscrutability, the aura of authentic difference from the (largely inhospitable) host population remained a distinctive feature always. But the loud, raucous, demanding, suspicious, sometimes confrontational persona became for a while the reality. There were many times when – mistaken for a policeman, a council official, a bailiff, or simply seen as an intrusive stranger – I had to stand my ground & deal with bitterness, confusion & anger.
I gained some credibility with the Gypsies simply by being in a position to articulate publicly their argument in the ongoing debate concerning the status of the local unofficial Gypsy site. They wanted the site granted official recognition but residents were anxious to see the back of the settlers, citing the usual objections of plummeting house prices, rubbish left at roadsides, barking dogs & tales of thefts or incidents of violence that always seemed to have happened to some one else who knew someone else who was the victim.
So I wrote a series of letters to the two local newspapers, both widely circulated, signing them as from the families on the site. With something like 80% illiteracy amongst adult Gypsies at that time this was a service that made some sense. My letters provoked fury in various forms ranging from the barely literate to the eloquently inhumane. Whilst a few murmurs of support crept onto the letters page now & then, accompanied occasionally by moderate, entirely reasonable pleas for consideration of the needs of local housedwellers, the overall effect of providing a voice for the Gypsies was to poke a stick deep into the wasps’ nest. Through many of those extreme responses I had my first encounters with the ugliness & brute ignorance that underpins so much of attitudes towards Gypsies.
Gradually the implacable reserve & suspicion of the Gypsies with whom I was liasing melted away &, as I became more involved in the mass of practical issues that resulted from illegal encampment, friendships formed. Working principally with three or four leaders (never acknowledged as such by the others, never officially accepted as such by the men themselves), I obtained legal representation & we set about prosecuting Hampshire County Council for non-implementation of the Caravan Sites Act. The least we were able to achieve in the early days was the entanglement of the Council in so much procedural red tape that actions to evict were constantly delayed & postponed. The most we achieved in the long term (& it took several years) was the provision of an official site for all the families in a decent area away from housing, sewage plants & the motorway.
During the 10 years in which I was involved with Gypsy families in Surrey & Hampshire I experienced again & again their generosity, their dark humour, their resourcefulness, their optimism, their powerful allegiance to family & their deep, self-defining pride in their ethnicity. When I moved from Surrey I lost touch with the families. But I have many abiding memories of good times & bad - of warm caravans on winter heathland, across which blew the very winds that introduced me to the Romany dream years before; of pouring rain & ankle-deep mud through which bailiff’s Landrovers slithered, towing out the very same caravans… Of the following:
• Trips up to London with men in battered hats & Luton ‘traveller’ boots to talk with Saville Row-suited barristers in Lincolns Inn Fields.
• Striking deals with the property company that bought the land on which, at one time, the families were encamped - £100.00 per family to move off voluntarily, each family represented by how ever many caravans they owned (& Fuzzy Eastwood borrowing four tourers from his family in Berkshire & driving each one out in quick succession without being recognised by the paymaster at the gate.)
• The one tap in the centre of the Napley Road site from which all the families had to draw brackish, brown water & the local doctor (who was angry about the proximity of Gypsies to his five-bedroom house) unable to deduce why so many babies & young children were brought to him with gastric complaints.
• Eating jellied eels with Johnny Stevens, Georgie Collins & Bluey Bagley on the Derby Day hillside where, traditionally, Gypsies from all over Britain traditionally gather; listening to them speaking Anglo-Romani – the poggado-jib, or ‘broken tongue’ - & understanding virtually every word.
• Turning up one morning to a piece of rough ground at the bottom of a slope in Farnborough where the families had moved days before just ahead of eviction & being shown 12 variously charred car tyres that had been rolled flaming down the slope during the night.
• Watching 70-year-old Joby Cooper step-dancing inside a circle of wildly cheering, ecstatically drunk Gypsy men & boys at Misty Collins’ wedding.
• Arguing with a local Tory MP about obligations to beleaguered Gypsy families with nowhere to go as he posed for regional television cameras & being told (off camera) that since they weren’t householders & weren’t in rented accommodation they had no vote & thus fell outside his sphere of interest.
• Standing by an outside fire one autumn evening listening to 98-year-old Nofella Smith, Bui & Georgie Smith’s grandmother, reciting without pause for recollection & barely drawing breath, the names & interrelationships of all her ancestors back five generations.
• Taking photographs of Georgie Collins, Young Joby Cooper, Old Joby Cooper & his wife Esther, Johnny Stevens, Bui & Georgie Smith, Jackie Louder, Caleb & Mary Wenman on the opening day of the new official site; watching the breezy jubilation of the County Council officials, so proud of the results of their relentless & unsparing work for the Gypsy families; looking back at the impassive faces of the Gypsy men & women, displaying no gratitude to these fly-by-night local dignitaries, expressing if anything a quiet satisfaction at the successful culmination of 8 years of dogged, stubborn battle…
• Then of walking around the trailers, all drawn up onto their own hard-won pitches to say goodbye to the families on the eve of my move from Surrey to Hertfordshire.