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Danger! Educated Gypsy
By Ian Hancock, Dileep Karanth
University of Hertfordshire PressCopyright © 2010 Ian Hancock
All rights reserved.
Briliko o djes, e slajdale thov
And'o vabo gajrin thaj gimblin
E borogovura sa mimsale, 'aj
Avri le momutne ratura grabin
"Arakh e Djabravokostar chava
Thar dand'ren, vunzi rrande'
Chiriklja djudjup gonisar, thaj na
E bandersnacostar frumale!"
Lja p'o vorpalo xanrro vastal
E dumanos manksale but rod'las
Ap hodinisajlo pa'e rukh tumtum
Thaj tordilo vrjamasa te gind'las
Thaj sar gindilas ufilones
O Djabravok, jakh phab'rindo
Viflisardja p'o tulutno ve
'Aj burblinas sar 'vilo
Jekh duj, jekh duj, andre, andre
Vorpali churi niknak'sardjas
Mukhlja les mulo, lja o ero
"Thaj mudardjan Tu Djabravokos?
Bimaleja, dav Tut angali!
Frabutno djes! Kalu kalej!"
Lo'nes asaja avri
Briliko o djes, e slajdale thov
And'o vabo gajrin thaj gimblin
E borogovura sa mimsale, 'aj
Avri le momutne ratura grabin.
Marko died in 1956, when I was barely into my teens. He was just 'Grandad' then, and I suppose I took his presence pretty much for granted. It wasn't until later that I began to realise what a source of interesting stories his varied life had been. For a number of years I have been collecting narratives, oral and sometimes written, about Marko in his earlier years; from talking to family members, and others who knew him, I began to put together a picture of his life.
On a visit back to England in 1984 I persuaded my Dad's sister, my Aunty Nell, who was then seventy-seven, to tape-record whatever recollections she had of her father, and before her death in 1994 she would periodically send me a cassette of these.
My own father was taken from my grandparents by the welfare authorities in 1918 at the age of six and a half, and put into a home where there were numbers of other Romani children similarly taken away from their parents, supposedly for their own good. While the removal of Gypsy children from their families for placement in institutions is well documented for countries such as Sweden, Slovakia or Switzerland, the fact that it was happening in Britain too, and that British Romani women may even have been coercively sterilised, is less well known. The late Len Smith, a Traveller acquaintance who lived in Hampshire, had begun to document such instances.
This particular home was at 'The Mote', Charlton House, part of a national organisation known as the Caldecott Community. It was originally about a mile and a half from Sutton Valance (in Kent, not the same place as Sutton in Surrey where my mother was born), ten minutes from Headcorn Station, although it was relocated to Hertfordshire in 1929. It still exists; its website describes it as being there to 'help children grow emotionally ... repairing some of the damage brought about by abuse, trauma, disruption or deprivation' in their early childhood. In her description of The Mote, written while my father was there, Josephine Ransom told how 'the children take part in everything, house, garden, looking after the donkey and the pig, and waiting at table where the domestic workers join in the meals' (1919: 24).
In 1925, when he was thirteen and a half, my father ran away to join the training ship T.S. Mercury and later the T.S. Arethusa, both of which were docked at Hamble near Southampton, two miles from the Netley railway station. There he was put in charge of the wire gantlines, the gantry cables used for carrying a harness up to the masthead. He also took up boxing, and spent the rest of his life with a broken nose because of it. He later left the training ships for the merchant navy, and visited Australia, West Africa and the Caribbean; with the outbreak of World War II he transferred to the Royal Navy, where he served mainly in the eastern Mediterranean, until he was demobilised in 1946. After that he found work as a travelling salesman in paper products for a company called T.B. Ford, and kept this job for the next ten years, until we left England in 1957.
His memories of Caldecott Community were not unhappy ones. He remembered the two headmistresses, Miss Phyllis Potter and Miss Leila Rendel, and none of the children wearing shoes (although all were provided with shiny matching shoes for the official photograph!), and their being made to plant and harvest their own crops to eat. I visited The Mote just once as a boy with my father, and only recollect seeing fields with neat rows of vegetables, and passing through a low archway into a big central courtyard.
My dear Dad was the most valuable source of information about our family, even though my mother, Kitty, usually managed to steer the topic of conversation away from my Grandfather Marko whenever it was broached in her presence. Her own father was Arthur 'Jack' Palmer, a Romanichal who sometimes stayed at 5 Beauchamp Road in Sutton in Surrey, four or five miles from Epsom Downs where he knew Marko well, since they both used to spend a lot of time in that district. There is a new book of photographs of Romanies in the Sutton area, including some of the Romani visitors to that town from Hungary (Evans, 2003). Jack was a rag-and-bone man (a 'totter') as well as an amateur boxer. The Palmer family, which is very large, was a branch of the Smiths, and originated in the area around Windsor and where the Heathrow Airport now is, west of London. Her mother was a girl named Cicely who was either Irish or English, and who was in service in a mansion close to Sutton; she was only in her mid-teens, and my mother's father Arthur was with his second wife at that time, a woman named Harriet. After she was born, Cicely gave her baby, my Mum, into the care of Arthur's sister Rose, because Harriet refused to take her, and then she left Surrey permanently for somewhere in the Midlands.
When she was fifteen, by this time having already met my father, my mother was taken away to stay with Edith ('Ede'), the eldest daughter from Harriet's first marriage, and Edith's husband Bob Jolly, a postman. Their house was at 90 Nowell Road in Mortlake, not far from Barnes Common and Watneys Brewery, and connected to Chiswick on the north side of the Thames opposite by a footbridge. This was the area where a series of gruesome murders was to occur (described in detail, with a map of the area, by Seabrook, 2006), around the same time that we left Chiswick to go and live in Canada.
Edith was puritanically strict. Mum tells of hiding lipstick and stockings in her handbag and having to put them on in secret once outside the house then later removing them before going home, because they were absolutely forbidden by Arthur's tyrannical stepdaughter whom, for the rest of her life, she would only refer to as 'the deadly aunt'. She remembers running into Edith somewhere unexpectedly while wearing lipstick and nylons, and getting a sound and public slap in the face for it. It was just a few months before my mother seized an opportunity to get away from Barnes and the Jollys for good.
She had found a job at John Barker's department store in Kensington High Street, and there met a girl named Madge Orpwood who lived in Shepherds Bush, with whom she became great friends. Madge's mother Frances lived in Acton, and she asked my mother to come and stay there with her in Kingscote Road, since life was so miserable for her in Barnes. Madge's mum was very kind to my mother, and when I was a little boy she was my 'Nanny Orp'; it is after her that I was given my middle name Francis. They called me 'Hinkhonk' because I couldn't pronounce 'Hancock' properly, and that was my nickname for many years. A surprising Hancock reference turns up in Barbara Nadel's novel After the Mourning, where the 'hero', an Anglo-Indian detective named Francis Hancock, solves a gruesome Gypsy murder in Epping Forest.
To get to Kensington, my mother would walk each day along the towpath to Hammersmith Bridge, then cross the river to catch the bus in Hammersmith Broadway. By this time my father had moved in with Aunt Jess, Marko's sister, where he slept in a closet under the stairs, and would arrange his time so that he'd be putting the daily papers in the rack outside when my mother, whom he'd originally met in Sutton, came past the shop. Later on he found another job selling books and papers in a shop in Ladbroke Grove closer to the family in Notting Dale. With the outbreak of war he went back to sea, this time to join the Royal Navy where he eventually became a lieutenant, a remarkable achievement considering his background. For the first three years of her marriage during the Second World War, before I was born and while my father was away at sea, my mother left Nanny Orp's house and went to stay with some Romani Palmers who lived near a village called Cookham, which is north of Maidenhead and some six miles from Windsor Castle.
Although my grandfather (and my father, when he was on leave) both spent a lot of time in the Sutton and Epsom area before I was born, I went back there with my mother to visit my grandfather and Aunty Rose fewer than ten times altogether as a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rose had married a man named Bill Harland, and their children were Molly, Frank, Terry and Joan; Molly was my parents' bridesmaid and Terry was then a 'Desert Rat' serving in the army in Egypt. I remember Uncle Bill carrying me around on his shoulders in their house, and going up to a stuffed animal's head mounted on the wall, saying "Boo!" and me being terrified.
My mother has never been enthusiastic about the Romani part of her own background and was also openly critical of my father's side of the family for being what they were. Now in her nineties, she has mellowed considerably and has begun to talk more about it. There was always friction there because she didn't really care for most of my father's relatives, especially Marko, and her animosity had a lot to do with our eventually moving away from Britain altogether and going to live in Canada. The circumstances of her birth, out of wedlock at a time when this was viewed with far more disapproval than it is today, has also distanced her emotionally from her childhood.
My parents married in 1939 in St Andrews Anglo-Catholic Church, Staveley Road, Chiswick, although my mother was a Baptist. I was conceived in Birkenhead in December 1941, when she visited my father there during his Christmas shore leave, but I was born in London. We lived in Chiswick at 34 Esmond Road, although in the early forties we stayed for different periods of time in a number of other towns too, including South Shields and Glasgow.
The first German V-2 rocket to be aimed at Britain landed a mile or two from our house, but mercifully it didn't explode. Every time my mother would take me on the number 55 bus to the free clinic in Meon Road and we'd pass under the railway bridge on Acton Lane, she'd say, 'That's where the rocket fell'. This got a mention in a book about the development of space travel: 'On September 8, 1944 the first rocket bomb, or V-2, fell near Chiswick in London, like a meteor out of space. This event marked the beginning of a new era in warfare' (Coggins and Pratt, 1952: 30).
Others in particular who have given me useful information about Marko are George Marriott, who was a contemporary of his and who organised the Gypsy Ex-Servicemen's Association; Manfri Fred Wood, Keith Nichols, Toni Nathan Lee (who began, but never finished, recording a cassette tape of his reminiscences of Marko for me), Barrie Taylor, and most of all a family friend and 'uncle', Albert Cook. We lost contact with Uncle Albert when we left for Canada in 1957, but Thomas Acton put us back in touch by mail in the early 1970s. Albert was Inmate Number 096510 in the Wandsworth Prison at that time, for the alleged theft of a shirt from Marks and Spencer, and Thomas Acton, working with the Gypsy Council, was attempting to effect his release. He was also visited by noted Romanologist Donald Kenrick and by Anne Sutherland, now Professor of Anthropology at the University of California and author of Gypsies, the Hidden Americans (1975), who was living in Britain at that time. She, too, spoke for his release; in all of his letters, he determinedly maintained that he had been wrongly convicted, and was only guilty of being a Gypsy.
Uncle Albert periodically travelled with Marko as a young man, and had also been in Hungary, where his own and part of our family both originate. His name is an anglicisation of 'Kocs'. Information he provided in this connection has been especially valuable, and I have supplemented it with the help of Dr Várnagy Elemér of Pécs, who has made a study of Hungarian Romani genealogy. Of course Marko's other children, as well as my grandmother and his sister Jess, both of whom survived him by several years, also spoke of him frequently, although not all of them at all kindly.
When I was very young, after the end of the war, groups of families, including my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, would go down into Kent and Surrey to pick hops, an occupation known to them as 'scrooping' (see Bignell, 1977 and Schweitzer and Hancock, 1991). My recollections of this are not very clear, but I do remember sleeping on a blanket on the floorboards of a long building in Farnham; a lot of noisy children; and the times at the end of the day when the adults would gather at one or another public house, and we would be left outside for interminable periods under a blanket in the backseat of a car and usually mollified with gifts of potato crisps (but not the extra salty blue ones) and bottles of Tizer and fizzy Idris lemonade. 'I drinks Idris when I's dry!' went the racist advertisement, matching the paper gollywog I remember would be under the lid of each jar of Robertson's marmalade.
I really remember my Grandfather Marko well only when he was an old man; in fact he was just 67 when he died, but I suppose to me as a boy he seemed quite old. I'm told that as a younger man he had a great deal of charm, and was something of a womaniser. He was thin, with black hair and angular features, and because of his musical skills and nice voice (a talent shared by his sister Jessie) was very popular. For a while he was a street clown, performing tricks with balloons for children (the picture of him doing this is from Galford, 2001: 62), but he was a rat-catcher during the last years of his life, and my grandmother's death certificate lists him as a 'rodent operator'. I don't imagine he ever used such a fancy title himself. Aunty Nell tells a funny story of Grandad's rat-catching days:
When he was still new at it, he was in the basement of a bakery with an older hand who was showing him the tricks of the trade. Old Bill got a torch and said to my Dad, "Now when I shine this torch onto the pipes, you get the neck of the sack ready, and when I shout out, right!" Well, it all went okay until Dad saw these bloody big rats coming towards him. He dropped the sack and ran, and a rat went with him. And Dad fell on him, and killed it. And the outcome was, "I've seen some funny rat-catchers in my time, but never one 'oo kills 'em wiv 'is arse!"
Aunty Nell and Uncle Fred had two daughters, my cousins Sylvia (now deceased) and June (now June Butcher, and living in Barnsley). Most of my family, including Marko and my Grandmother Gertrude, lived in North Kensington and in Notting Hill near 'Gipsy Square' (no longer on current maps) in an area that used to be known as The Potteries, in streets such as Bomore Road, Latimer Road, Edge Street and Western Terrace (now renamed Lonsdale Road, where Marko lived at number 17, and where my father was born). Before the First World War there used to be kilns for the manufacture of bricks and clay pots, as well as a number of pig farms, between there and nearby Shepherds Bush. The area around Latimer Road was known back then as 'the piggeries and potteries', although it is highly gentrified now. On Saturdays and Sundays throughout the 1960s I would regularly ride the number 88 bus along Goldhawk Road to Shepherds Bush Market, a place where you could hear Romani, Yiddish, Urdu, Bengali, Jamaican Patois and several other languages being spoken around the stalls along by the arches below the Metropolitan Line tube station.
On one tape, Aunty Nell describes how they would periodically do a 'moonlight flit' from one place to another because they couldn't pay the rent; they would throw their belongings down from the upstairs window into a handcart and steal silently away in the middle of the night to a new place. On another, she describes how the police suddenly showed up in the middle of the night at a place where they were staying in Acton, looking for Marko, who had managed to disappear via the backyard just moments before.
Excerpted from Danger! Educated Gypsy by Ian Hancock, Dileep Karanth. Copyright © 2010 Ian Hancock. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
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