My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies
By Mikey Walsh
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Mikey Walsh
All rights reserved.
The Birth of a Pig Boy
They were travelling through Berkshire with the rest of their convoy when my granny Ivy's water broke in the back of a van. Most Gypsy women in those post-war days would give birth at home with the help of other women but, being less than four feet tall and easily mistaken for a pygmy in a cardigan, Ivy, despite having the temperament of an ogre, was in no condition to have a home birth without the aid of a real nurse and a couple of doctors.
The nearest hospital was the Royal Berkshire, and Ivy had no choice but to go there for the birth of her child. She successfully popped out a strapping boy, Tory, and within a couple of years she was back there, this time producing twins: my father Frank and his sister Prissy. Ivy's youngest and most precious, Joseph, arrived another two years after that.
Ivy and my grandfather, Old Noah, were Gypsy royalty and the dedication that the Royal Berks bestowed on one of the Gypsies' best-known elders was not forgotten. By the time Joseph arrived, just about every new baby in the Gypsy community was being born there.
Reading is a sprawling town just outside London with no major landmarks or attractions, but its status as home to the Royal Berks made it the most popular Gypsy destination in the country. Wherever they were, when the time to give birth drew near, travelling families would flock to one of the many campsites surrounding the town.
When my own turn came, the moment was witnessed by my father, Granddad Noah, Granny Ivy, my other granny, Bettie, my mum's sister, Aunt Minnie and her husband Uncle Jaybus. Births, like weddings and funerals, were a shared event in the Gypsy world, and this one all the more so, not only because my mother had a heart murmur and there were fears for her health, but because the family were fiercely determined that she would deliver them a boy.
My parents already had a daughter, my sister Frankie, so this baby simply had to be my father's longed-for first son.
As I was laid in my mother's arms, Granny Ivy, with her dyed black bouffant hair, mouthful of gold teeth and the physique of that of a child said 'That is the fattest child I have ever seen in my life, Bettie! A little pig boy.'
The heads around the bed cackled, nodding and stroking their chins in unanimous agreement.
I have no idea what I weighed – or what I looked like – but the night Bettie Walsh gave birth to a pig has gone down in family folklore.
For years my mother would brag that I near killed her. I spent my childhood listening to Gypsy women cluck and howl about the day Bettie brought her oversized piglet home. If there had been a prize for the biggest, ugliest, fattest baby, I would have been awarded the biggest, ugliest, fattest trophy. And, after the number of times I had to sit and politely listen to the story of how horrified they were at the sight of me, I felt I deserved one.
The first thing my father did, in the minutes after I arrived, was to place around my neck a gold chain with a tiny pair of gold boxing gloves on it. It had been made before they even knew what sex I would be; a symbol of my future glory, and my father's highest hopes.
In each country, there is one man that wears the crown in the sport most favoured by Gypsy culture: bare-knuckle fighting. This crown is the Holy Grail amongst Gypsy men, but whether they go for the crown or not, all Gypsy men will have to fight as part of their day-to-day life. It would be impossible for any Gypsy man, no matter how much he might wish for a quiet life, to be in the company of other Gypsy men without being asked to put his hands up. And when he is asked, that is what he must do. No matter how little chance he has of winning, he must defend his honour, even if he will simply end up a bloody and battered notch on the belt of an aspiring fighting man or, more often, a two-bob bully.
Any man who aims for the crown has to fight – and beat – a host of others to get there. And the life of a true Gypsy champion is a tough one. The price that comes with the title is that he must spend his whole life fighting to retain it, for there is always a new, eager and younger contender waiting to take his place.
That's why our family was considered special. The bare-knuckle crown had been in our family since my great-grandfather, Mikey, first won it.
He had moved to Britain from Eastern Europe during the Blitz, poverty stricken and homeless, with his wife and their children: three sons and two daughters. The war had almost finished off the Gypsies, who were loathed and persecuted by the Nazis. Many in Europe were convinced that we had been wiped out, and would survive only as a mere footnote among the other cultures that had fallen prey to the Holocaust. But some defied the odds, and in the years after the war, they regrouped and built up their communities once again.
When my great-grandparents moved to Britain, Mikey and his wife Ada did whatever they could to make a living. She hawked good-luck charms and told fortunes, while he fought for money, putting up his fists for anyone who would throw in a few pounds. The two of them prospered, and Mikey's reputation as a champion fighter grew.
They earned enough to buy a piece of land. And they turned that land into a home; a camp for Gypsies, to take them off of the roadsides, farmers' fields and lay-bys. They offered affordable rents, good company, a place to keep animals and shelter from the prejudices of the outside world. Gypsies flocked to live on their site.
The need to fight for money had gone, but the lust for blood and the thrill of victory had not. And so, it became Mikey's fate to fight on. Every bold young Gypsy man in the country, thirsty for glory, came to try his luck against the champion. And he beat them all until, after years of undefeated bliss, he finally became too old to compete with younger, stronger men and was beaten. His son Noah, still only a boy and too young to fight, swore to earn his birthright back. And at the age of sixteen, he did just that, grinding the man who had defeated his father into the ground.
Determined to keep the crown in his family, Noah brought his sons up to be gladiators amongst Gypsies. From the earliest age he forced his boys to fight grown men and even each other, until they learned to be fearless and ferocious.
'Hit 'em so they'll never get back up. One. Good. Hit. Put out your man like a candle,' he would repeat. It became his sons' mantra.
By the time my father had reached his teenage years he had beaten just about every man worthy of fighting in the whole country. He longed for the title and the respect and praise from his father that would come with it. But the crown my father was desperate for had already been won by Tory, his older brother; not only the best fighting man amongst Gypsies, but also richer and more handsome than my father and the unshakeable favourite of their father. So successful was he that he went on to become a boxing champion in the non-Gypsy world too.
My father stood no chance against his brother and, with his own hopes frustrated, he pinned them on his son, determined that I would be the fighting man to beat all others, including Tory's two strapping boys, young Tory and young Noah, who, though little more than toddlers themselves, were already shaping up to be prize specimens.
My impressive size and ugliness at birth only served to fire my father's enthusiasm. And once the chain, with its golden gloves was around my neck, he wanted a fitting name for me.
My mother didn't fancy the popular Gypsy names like Levoy, John, Jimmy, or Tyrone. Hooked on the eighties glamour of her favourite TV show, Dynasty, she was stuck on naming me Blake. My father and his family were not, especially Old Noah.
'That's a fucking ugly bastard of a boy that is,' he told my parents. 'You can't call him Blake.'
My mother was quite accustomed to the harsh bluntness of her father-in-law, but that was a step too far. She remained adamant that my name should be Blake – until my father stepped in and insisted I be named after his grandfather, the grand old prizefighter, Mikey.
So Mikey became my official name. But to my mother, I was always, and always will be, Blake.
With the name sorted, or at least compromised on, they took me home. My mother had brought a wicker basket, in which she placed me, but it wasn't up to the job of holding such a bruiser of a baby. As she carried me out of the hospital, I ripped through the bottom of the thing and bounced down the front steps to the pavement below.
'You didn't make a sound,' my mother said, as she recounted the incident to me some years later. 'I ran down the steps, screaming after you and you had your face flat into the ground, totally silent. I thought you were dead. But when I turned you around, you looked as if I'd just woken you from a deep sleep.'
I was rushed back in, and checked over, but found to have only a few grazes. I was considered very lucky. But by the time my mother and father had got into the car to take me home, they had begun to get concerned.
'He's not made a sound, Frank.'
'He's a mute. I bet on my mother's life, I've got myself a mute child,' my father said.
Home was a caravan park just a few miles outside Reading. Ours was one of a circle of trailers, all with small gardens and a shed behind. The central area, where the trailers faced one another, had been intended as a play area for children, but over the years had become a dumping ground for old cars with most of their engines and insides ripped out. The little garden areas behind the trailers were the same – heaped with car parts, old cars, rubbish and scrap. Most of the men made their money from putting cars together from the assorted bits scattered about or selling the spare parts. By the time I arrived the place was so heaped with scrap that there was barely enough room for us to drive through the gate, negotiate the car through the mountains of rubble, and park behind our trailer.
This was not the land my great-grandparents had bought. That had been sold to buy Tory a grand house, a second-hand car dealership and a scrapyard, which he ran with his youngest brother Joseph.
The inside of our trailer was typical of an early eighties caravan – chocolate brown mixed with a slap of bright, Halloween orange. The couch was embroidered with different shades of autumnal flowers, the walls, although they looked wooden, were actually cheap fibreglass panels that were easily broken and bore testament to my father's temper. There were several jagged portholes the size of his fist, and one huge head-sized one in the wall between the kitchen and the lounge, which looked like a jagged diner window. Around the walls there were family pictures and plenty of the gilt-edged mirrors so beloved of Gypsy women. My mother was never a sovereign-earrings kind of Gypsy and she wasn't keen on the gilt, but she did find that the mirrors were useful for disguising the 'architectural flaws'.
My sister Frankie, then almost two years old, was delighted to find she had been brought a new toy. But as my silence continued over the following weeks my parents became increasingly concerned. I didn't cry, gurgle or make any baby noises at all; I just lay there wide-eyed, looking up at the ceiling. They began to wonder what on earth could be wrong. Unable to tell when I was tired, hungry, or just plain agitated, Mum and Dad took turns watching my cot.
By the time I had learned to sit up on my own, at six months, apparently I still hadn't made a sound. But everything changed the day my mother brought home a colossal crab. They were her favourite snack, and once a week she would bring home a good, brick-sized one, complete with face, from her regular Friday shopping trip. One day she propped me up on some pillows and placed one of the – thankfully dead – beasts in front of me while she finished her cleaning. At first, I just stared, mystified. But eventually I became a little braver, I reached out and poked it; then rolled it over, and finally picked it up. After that the little sea monsters fascinated me so much that, to my mother's joy and relief, they caused me to grunt and squeal with excitement every time she placed one on my lap. I never lost my fascination for them, and by the time I was two I had learned to dissect the body and even to work the mechanism for its pincers.
By the time I was two or three and old enough to play, Frankie had become my best friend and heroine. We looked like twins. The only real difference was in the colour of our eyes; Frankie's were near black in colour, just like our mother's, while mine were bright green, like Grandfather Noah's. Both of us had olive skin – though hers was a little darker – and thick dark hair. Mine, was styled into the typical helmet look of an eighties street kid, while Frankie's bounced in thick black curls like a Latino Shirley Temple.
Granny Bettie hated Frankie's hair. She thought a proper Gypsy girl's hair should be straight as a poker and long enough to sit on.
One day, when she was looking after us, after telling her that her hair made her look ugly, she handed Frankie a pair of scissors and left her alone in her bedroom. She knew full well what would happen, and by the time our mother came home, Frankie had lopped off every curly ringlet.
After that she had to wear a hat for a while, which suited her tomboyish nature, and meant that the adults in our camp would often mistake her for me.
There were a few other children on the campsite that we played with, but mostly it was just Frankie and me, and we liked it that way.
We did hang out on occasion with a pair of real twins, Wisdom and Mikey. They were cousins of ours. Although they were twins, Wisdom and Mikey looked absolutely nothing like one another. Mikey, who was also named after our great-grandfather in the hope that he would inherit some of the legendary fighting spirit, had a permanent squint and the grimace of an old lady with a smoker's mouth, while Wisdom had an extremely narrow head and was constantly picking off the slab of snot that crusted around his upper lip.
We played He-Man together, using sticks and dustbin lids, but the twins were eventually banned from playing with us because Frankie would always get too rough. She even killed their pet rabbit by beating it to death with a broom handle. She didn't mean to – like me, she loved animals – but unfortunately she got overexcited and was never able to comprehend how much pain she was causing.
When Frankie and I played together she was always in charge. Her favourite pastime was dressing me up as her Aunt 'Sadly'. We were both fans of Worzel Gummidge, but neither one of us could pronounce Sally properly. Aunt Sadly ran a shop that sold lovely clothes, make-up and babies. I would dress up in Frankie's night gowns and set up shop in our room, with Frankie's army of Cabbage Patch dolls – all provided by Old Noah, who bought her a new one every week – as the babies.
Frankie would get dressed up, plaster herself with the various shades of brown and orange make-up that she would steal from Granny Bettie, pop into Aunt Sadly's shop to hang around for a gossip before choosing a child to take home.
Frankie liked to make meals for her Aunt Sadly too, and invite her over to eat. Her specialty was a raw egg, mud and Play-Doh pie, which I dutifully did my best to eat without vomiting over the front of my dress.
We loved these games and played happily for hours, though never when my father was around. He was not keen on Aunt Sadly at all. And he wasn't alone in disapproving. In Gypsy culture boys and girls are kept apart. Frankie was always dressed like a china doll: little dresses, ringlets and diamond earrings, which she hated, while I was in a miniature version of an old man's togs; a flat cap, dungarees and, of course, the chain with the gold boxing gloves that I could never take off, not even in the bath. Right from the start, boys and girls are expected to inhabit different worlds, and I soon learned that, even by the age of two or three, already my path had been chosen for me. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. Copyright © 2009 Mikey Walsh. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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