We Still Breathe their Air|
There have been Roma in Europe since the Middle Ages and today they make up one of the continent's largest minorities, in countries as far apart as Ireland and Russia. Roma have a rich and ancient oral culture, that has survived in many forms, despite centuries of discrimination and attempts at forced assimilation. Today, across Europe, traditional Romany ways of life are disappearing fast under the pressures of modern life. But in this programme we look at the example of Roma in the Czech Republic and Romany Gypsies in Britain, and find out that many are turning to writing as a way of preserving and asserting their culture.
"My music is about the experience of the problems of my race, because
I'm a Gypsy, and I can say - yes, I'm angry, but it's also funny. I want
to provoke on both sides, not only the white side but also. I want to
provoke Gypsies and everyone who's listening."
"The Roma culture is dying, it's true, but on the other side, I don't
think all elements of Roma culture are dying."
(Czech Romany Rapper "Gipsy")
"I think it's time for the Travellers to realize that they don't just
have to be one thing. Just as long as you are what you are in your heart,
it doesn't matter which language you're using or how it's coming
(English Romany Gypsy poet Hester Hedges)
by Hester Hedges
Square pegs in round holes
yet ready for what life unfolds
we know what
the future holds
for the Gypsies
it is the gift for the precious few
the Gypsies know
Move on, that's what the Gypsies will do.
Laughter will shatter the ruins of the world
you'll hear it from the
and music will prevail,
when the caged birds are silenced
from the Gypsies
Mothers singing beyond walls and over waters
the voice of
And the young will renew the old
as memories are retold, retold
for what is time to all of we
for we are every Romany
Move on again, Yes that's what we do
and we will find a tale or two
old world is our breath, our heart
and our start, is where we finish
forever, moving on.
Two young people from very different parts of Europe expressing themselves
in very different ways and yet they share the desire to deliver a common
message. Romany rapper "Gipsy", from Prague talks about the
difficulties faced by his people, the Roma in the Czech Republic. Hester
Hedges from an English Romany Gypsy family uses poetry to express her
desire not to be seen as a square peg to be driven into a round hole. For
centuries across Europe, the Gypsies have been cast in the role of
outsiders, a race of people who need to be controlled and eventually
assimilated into the dominant culture of the Gadjee or Gorjer, the non
Historically Gypsy culture has not made much use of literacy, its strength
has rested within the strong bonds and relationships of oral interchange.
But these two young people are part of a growing movement of Roma who are
now using the power of the written word to make their voices heard outside
their own communities.
But in so doing they are not simply casting off or disregarding their own
history and culture, they are drawing upon the older oral traditions
embedded within the arts of song, music and storytelling.
The old world
Ilona Ferkova is a Roma poet and author who lives in the West Bohemian
town of Rocycany and Bill Lee a novelist, currently living on a
council-run Gypsy site in Kent in South-East England. They both grew up
having very little contact with non Gypsies. The stories and songs carried
by the older generation formed an essential part of their education.
Ilona Ferkova: "There was a "wagon colony" - made of old
railway wagons - here. All the Slovak Roma lived there. Dad was clever and
made two rooms from the wagon. He wanted lots of children and I was one of
7. He fell ill and mother had to work. The wagon colony was demolished. My
parents were given a flat and that's where I grew up.
"We lived our own lives. We weren't like Czech children - we didn't
have after-school activities and things like that. All the Roma children
all played together in one street. We would go and play there with the
People would talk a lot there. When the old people got together in the
courtyard, drank beer and played music, they started telling stories. I
loved listening to their stories. They were amazing. I loved going to the
ghetto to hear what the old Roma said."
Bill Lee: "We would pull into a farmer's field of about twenty or
thirty acres. They would always pull up around the edge. You could look
out and you would see the fires starting to glow up. I'll always remember
seeing the black shadows that moved as the night drew in around the fires.
But you could go to that fire. Even people you didn't know, and they were
older people than yourself - straight away you'd adopt those people. You'd
call them 'aunt' and 'uncle' and in that way you showed them respect, and
they would treat you with respect as well. They'd ask you who you were and
you'd tell them your name. And then they'd start telling you stories about
"There were songs that they'd make up and sing. They'd be standing in
a group and they'd say, 'to you, bruv,' or 'to you sister', and they'd
'chuck' the song. They'd sing it so far and then you had to pick it up and
take it over. It would be a little bit different every time you heard it,
because someone had a new verse. They just made it up.
"My father always said - they say 'the good old days', but it was the
bad old days. In 1947, they were staying in these woods. It was the only
place that wasn't frozen up. Everywhere there was ice and snow. The birds,
you could pick them out of the bushes, they were frozen to the branches.
The life was so hard for them.
"It was a two-mile walk with a two-gallon churn, and by the time they
got the water back it was frozen solid in the churn. All they used to do,
my father and Alfie, was to carry water and get firewood to keep the fires
burning and keep my granny and grandfather alive and Alfie's mum and dad,
because otherwise they wouldn't have made the winter. And he said the
following winter was just as bad.
"And then, come the summer, if you were on the side of the roads, you
had the police on you all the time. It was just a vicious circle that went
on and on."
Andrej Gina: "I grew up in Eastern Slovakia. There were 7 families in
our settlement. In 1942 the Slovak fascists came and made us move. They
demolished our cottages and we had to move 2km out of the village. I was
6. We were very poor. That year it was very dry. My parents begged and
went to collect rotten potatoes left on the fields. It was dreadful.
Hunger. Our mothers carried us from house to house, begging the peasants
for food. At the harvest time our people worked for the peasants. They
paid us in food. Life was very tough."
Bill Lee: "No sooner had you finished work - whatever farm you were
on - than the council would get onto the farmer and make you move. You had
to go. That's why I didn't go to school. Well, I didn't know anybody who
went to school, when we were on the farms because we were all working.
We'd all be going down the roads to work before the birds were awake and
we'd be coming home when the birds had gone back to roost. So we spent all
our time in the fields to work - Saturdays and Sundays and all."
The beginnings of a Roma literary movement
Andrej Gina, in common with many Roma now living in the Czech
Republic, moved there after the war from Slovakia. Although persecuted and
forced from their homes by the fascists, the Slovak Roma generally escaped
the Holocaust during which almost the entire population of Roma in the
Czech Republic were murdered. Andrej comes from a family of metal smiths
and musicians and has written atmospheric short stories about life in the
old Romany villages of Slovakia. Together with Tera Fabianova he was part
of the first Roma literary movement in Prague during the late 1960's. Tera
writes poetry and short stories which are also rooted in her own
experiences and those of her people.
From the story: "HOW I WENT TO SCHOOL"
by Tera Fabianova
Once I was very hungry. It was at carnival time. The peasant women were
baking and cooking, but in our "gypsy" settlement we were as
hungry as ever. The teacher asked the children what they'd eaten.
"We've got nothing at home. We never eat till Mama gets back from the
village, Bango says. "So we don't eat in the morning."
It was true. Our first meal was in the afternoon, when the mothers
returned from the village and brought potatoes, curd cheese, milk, or
whatever the peasant women gave them for cutting their wood, cleaning out
the pigsty and scrubbing the oven clean.
"And what did you eat?" the teacher asked me.
"Wow." My eyes lit up like stars. "If only you knew
everything I'd eaten. A biscuit with curd cheese and butter, soup, buns,
"How come you ate, when your sister hasn't eaten anything since
yesterday?" the teacher interrupted.
"Why are you lying? Stick out that lying tongue of yours, and see how
it feels to have my ruler across it!"
I had to stick out my tongue, and the teacher slashed down on it with her
ruler. It hurt dreadfully. I couldn't even talk. When I'd recovered a bit,
I said, "I wasn't lying! I did eat it all. In my dreams. Last night I
dreamed that I was eating.
The teacher went red, said nothing and turned her back to me.
Tera Fabianova: "No-one in my family could read and write. I would go
and work as a little girl for the Gadjo for a piece of bread and lard. One
day they came to tell us to go to school. 'One from each family must go to
school or you'll be locked up.' My mother said, 'You'll go 'cos you're
naughty.' I climbed trees and was a real tomboy. My mum washed my head and
feet and I went off to school.
"I sat in the first row, because I wanted to be clever, and near the
teacher. I didn't have a pencil or paper or anything. I sat and waited for
the teacher. She came and said, 'Hey, you, Gypsy kid. Your place is at the
back.' There were three benches where the Romany and poorest children sat.
I wasn't allowed to sit at the front. But I wanted to be clever, wanted to
Hester Hedges: "The teacher, a lot of the time, doesn't even
understand you. I've seen teachers do horrendous things to traveller
children, not realising that actually what they're doing is infringing on
their cultural values and what they're comfortable with. I worked
as a support assistant for a time as well for the traveller education team
in Cambridgeshire, and some of the things the teachers do....
"Sometimes they'd shout at the children and say - 'If you turned up
more often, this would happen and that would happen. The reason why you're
stupid is because you're never here. You're too stupid to know that it's
good for you to turn up. But the thing is that they couldn't possibly turn
up any more than they were anyway, because with their family was moving around
they were in school as much as they could be."
Tera Fabianova: "The teacher made me suffer. When my little sister
Helena was born I was at the birth. I saw the miracle of someone being
brought into the world. The midwife told me to bring water and cloths. It
was cold and I helped to bring Helena into the world. We didn't have
running water, I had to go to the well, I had to cut wood for the midwife.
The next day I went to school. We had Catechism - I sat down. Because I
hadn't slept all night, I fell asleep. The priest said, '"Hey, you bighead"'
- because I had lots of hair - '"tell me how Jesus was born."' And I said -
"'Father, you've never seen it, but I was there when our Helena was born.'"
He gave me ten slaps with the cane on my bottom and on my hand. And he
sent me off to the church to pray."
Bill Lee: "When the boys were born education was going to be the way
forward. They had to have education. So no sooner did they become old
enough to go to school, we came onto the site and only travelled when they
had the school holidays. They didn't have a very easy time at school. It
was very hard for them. The first thing we had was the headmaster. He said
they had a speech impediment. He wanted us to take us to this place to
assess them and all that. So we took them, and the lady said, 'There's
nothing wrong with them', and she said, 'How old are they?' and I said,
'They're six now.' She said, 'I would have thought listening to them that
they were somewhere about eight or nine from the way they're talking.' And
what it was, they were talking Romany. And the other children in school
wanted to know, so they were teaching them as well. Because he couldn't
understand it, they said they had a speech impediment!"
A question of language
Ilona Ferkova jr.: "I wrote a poem about how I didn't want a son, but
a daughter, but when my son was born, I thought that he looked exactly like
me. I liked having a son. I was happy to have a child. It doesn't matter if
it's a boy or a girl."
Ilona Ferkova's daughter, also Ilona, writes as well. Her poetry is in Romany which, for
her, remains an important cultural touchstone although she didn't grow up
to speak it as a child. In the Czech Republic during the communist era
speaking the Romany language was actively discouraged as part of the
government's policy to assimilate the Roma. Many parents also felt that by
denying their culture and becoming Czech speakers their children might not
suffer the same racism and exclusion that they had.
Ilona Ferkova jr.: "When I was growing up I heard the Romany language
but I didn't understand. When my parents spoke the Romany language I asked
every time, 'What did you say? Tell me. I want to know. What is it, this
word?' We grew up in the Romany language, but we didn't understand."
Andrej Gina: "It upsets me how people speak Czech with their
children, even though they know how to speak Romany. They say it would be
a problem at school. I think that's nonsense. A little child who speaks
Romany at home very quickly comes to understand Romany - and then quickly
learns Czech too. We have this experience in my own family. We never
taught them Czech. We only spoke Romany with them, and I do to this day.
It was never a problem at school. My son went on to technical college. He
speaks good Romany and Czech. The girls too. They all speak both. There's
no sign that they've lagged behind because of it.
"People were encouraged to speak Czech, but a child can easily learn
- more easily than a grown-up. If he doesn't speak Romany at home it will
be lost, but Czech will always remain around him. Czech's everywhere, but
if you don't hear Romany at home, you won't hear it anywhere."
Bill Lee: "You'd pick it up. You would go out to the 'chover' -
that's the shop. You'd go to the 'kitchema' - that's the pub. The word
'garafer' is beer. And another word for a butcher's shop was a
'masangers'. There's no end to it. 'Tood' was milk, 'goodli' was sugar
'pan' was bread. The list goes on and on and on. There are things that are
just popping in my head now. I can always remember my grandfather saying
about his mother, my great gran - her hair was red and he used to call her
a 'wafeti bal juvel' - which means she's a bad-tempered woman. They always
say that people with red hair are bad-tempered."
Hester Hedges: "Because the younger generation has settled down, a lot of Gypsy parents
are saying now, 'Well, they're not Gypsies like we were Gypsies,' and
things like that. But are they actually speaking to us like their parents
spoke to them as well? Are they actually passing on all these words? I'm
not so sure that's actually happening. But the words that they have taught
me and the words that you get, you do actually use. And it sounds very
strange next to the English language, as well. It's like bringing in
Indian words. But sometimes I've written stories and I'm telling it, as if
I'm telling it to a Gorjer, but when I have conversations between Romany
people in the stories, then they will speak Romany."
In the eighteenth century linguists had identified Romany as a largely
Sanskrit language and evolved theories that it originated in northern
India and had travelled across Europe with groups of people who left the
Indus valley in the tenth century.
Although it has been written down by academics its use by Romany Gypsies
had always been as part of an oral tradition, the written word has
historically played no part in Gypsy culture. However as Hester has just
suggested the Romany language in the UK is becoming ever more Anglicised
as with every passing generation more words are lost.
Due in part to government policy the same happened in Czechoslovakia, but
in the 1960's a student of Hindology had taken an interest in the language
that was being spoken by the Roma. She recognised words that she already
knew from her work in Hindi and from then on deflected her studies towards
the language that the Gypsies spoke.
Dr Milena Hubschmanova is now professor of Romany Studies at the Charles
University in Prague and has been instrumental in supporting the Romany
language and assisting it to make the transition into a written form. She
knew that unless this happened it would inevitably continue to decline but
to undertake this work which was contrary to the communist government's
policy of assimilation was to take an enormous risk. However she was quick
to grasp the opportunity presented by the fleeting window of liberalisation
in the late 1960's
Milena Hubschmannova: "In 1968, the so-called Prague Spring, there
was an attempt to make society more democratic. That was suppressed very
soon. The Soviet troops came here. But in that time, Roma were permitted
to form their own organisation. It was called the Union of Gypsy-Roma. And
also they started to publish a bulletin. For the first time in the history
of Roma, I would say, it was the Roma themselves who started to write, who
wanted to write, who wanted to express their ideas in the Romany
Ilona Ferkova: "I saw the first thing that Andrej Gina had written.
It was the first time I'd seen written Romany. The book was there in the
shop and the title was in Romany. It really puzzled me. I couldn't believe
"But I didn't really start thinking about it until I founded a music
group with some other women. There was one song in Romany we sang. Milena
Hubschmannova really liked it. It was real. She asked me who had written
it, and I said - me. Milena encouraged me to write. But I'd never written.
It was strange, very strange, to write in Romany. It was strange to be
putting down what I said. It was even a slightly unpleasant feeling. When
I read it back I said, 'It sounds odd.' We weren't used to the written
word. But I read it again and again - and thought - 'this is really
Since those days Ilona has continued to write in Romany, The Rolling Pin
is a short story based on the real experience of Roma in the 60s, when in
a clumsy and cruel attempt at social engineering the government attempted
to separate Roma children from their parents.
We pick up the story as the mother Julka opens the door to find herself
confronted by a delegation from the authorities:
From THE ROLLING PIN
by Ilona Ferkova
"Now listen," said the second woman in a sweet voice, "you
know the child would be better off in a children's home. Don't be afraid,
they'll look after him properly there, better than you can."
That was the last straw for Julka. "So you've come to steal my
Julecek? Get out of my flat!" She marched over and opened the door.
She was still holding the rolling pin that she'd been using to roll out
the pastry when the Gadjo had come in. Pointing with the rolling pin she
showed them where to go. The Gadjo ran out at full speed, without even
stopping to shut the door, and Julka slammed it behind them.
She picked up her little boy from the floor. "Don't cry, sweetheart,
I won't let anyone take you!" And she kissed his tiny eyes, hands and
When Feri came home she told him what had happened.
"You should have hit them with the rolling pin!" Feri said
angrily. "Just as well you didn't. They'd have had you locked
A week later they got an official letter, summoning Julka to the police
station. The world went dark and her head began to swim.
Feri sighed. "You'll see, they'll make us move on again!"
When the police started at her, Julka's eyes flashed with fury. They say I
wanted to hit the Gadjo with a rolling pin: Assault on a public officer.
Creating a written version of a language that has hitherto only existed on
the tongue is a complex exercise. We have become accustomed to the notion
that a written language needs rules, we accept a consensus of grammar,
punctuation and spelling, so what happens when this framework is absent?
Milena Hubschmannova: "They simply wrote as they felt. Everybody has
his own spelling. Everybody has his own punctuation. It was, for instance,
beautiful using capital letters. I got a story, it was called 'Daniel', and
he wrote about his family. He wrote, 'My dear brother.' He wrote 'my' with
a little 'm', 'dear' with a capital letter, and 'brother' with an even
more capital letter!"
This is a very fluid form of language. Did things start to formalise over
a period of time?
MH: "Romani is still not standardised and everybody speaks a little
different, not much, but a little."
Do we not start to enter into some slightly difficult areas here? Is there
not a danger that all these different dialects and regional and national
dialects of Romany somehow become standardised?
MH: "This is very, very difficult and there are a lot of fights, but
there are examples in the world, for instance in Hindi. Hindi, which is
spoken by half a billion people, has 48 dialects, and in one text you can
see even four dialectic forms. So I got inspired by this and I think we
can use it in Romany too."
Through her work Milena Hubschmanova has been responsible for introducing
many Roma storytellers and poets to the written word thus to a much wider
public than the close circle of family and friends that usually make up
the audience in an oral culture. One such has been the Roma writer Tera
Fabianova whose work she helped to publish 35 years ago, it was during a
car journey with Tera that Milena first became aware of her friends
Milena Hubschmannova: "We were going somewhere by car and all of a
sudden she started to shout something. It was so beautiful that I
immediately stopped and took a paper and pencil or something, and I asked
her to repeat it. So she repeated it and I put it down. She was composing
poetry before but never in Romany, only in Hungarian, because Hungarian is
her second mother-tongue. It was her first poem in the Romany
Come with me, my sweet, to my mother's village
Where after dark the Roma
spin their tales
Come with me, I'll never leave your side
Nor bring you
pain or shame.
When the Roma see me bring you
The fiddler will strike up a
We are not poor, though we have nowhere to lay our heads.
An old walnut tree stands in the yard - leaves green,
There I shall lay
you down, when the silver night falls.
I shall spread my finest shirt beneath you
And if you happen to feel cold,
I shall call the heavens to cover you.
Sweet God will marry us
We need no priest
Come with me,
stay with me We
shall love one another
As the black earth the black bread.
By Tera Fabianova
Elementary schooling to equip Roma with basic literacy had been a part of
the government's assimilation policy in Czechoslovakia, but in the United
Kingdom a large proportion of Gypsies still didn't read or write at all,
let alone in Romany. The traditional travelling life had continued in
Britain until the 1960's when changes in work patterns and government
legislation finally rendered nomadism an untenable lifestyle for the
majority of English Gypsies. This means that literacy levels amongst adult
English Gypsies are very low, and that many of those who do read and write
it is only at a very basic, functional level.
As a grown man Bill Lee was still holding in his memory all those stories
that he had first heard at the fireside when he was a young boy, they
still ran in his mind, still alive but frustratingly elusive. He wanted to
render them permanent to put them into a form in which not only secure them
for future generations of his own family but would place them in front of a
Bill Lee: "It was because I was ill. You know, you're in a body that
won't work for you any more, but your brain is still active. It was
driving me crazy. I had to do something. This story that I heard over the
camp fires, it just kept coming over and over and over. Then a friend
introduced me to a dictaphone and I said I'd try it. We were living in a
house at the time, and the house to me was a prison, but outside we had a
big motor home. I used to go in there. Sometimes I'd just lay there and
talk into it until I went to sleep. Then I'd wake up, and it was still
running, with my snoring on it!"
From "DARK BLOOD"
by Bill Lee
The police used the main entrance of the farmyard. Looking across, they
saw the Gypsy wagon, with a fire burning, and some chickens running about.
Anne was busy around the fire, getting breakfast ready for the children.
Tucker was having a shave in a bowl of water that stood on a stool by the
wagon wheel, his white shirt almost seeming to glow in the early morning
The police officers marched up, kicking the cooking pots over. Some of the
water spilled over the fire, half dousing it, and the rest went over Anne
making her scream as the boiling hot water touched her hands and arms.
Tucker jumped up, but was knocked back down by the two police officers.
`You dirty Gypsy bastard,' they spat at him. `You're under arrest!'
tried to get back on his feet, but the two police officers grabbed him, one
holding him while the other rained punches to his chest and face.
`This is what we do to rapists,' one of the policemen shouted to Tucker's
wife, grabbing her by the back of the head, twisting her left arm behind
her back and forcing her down onto the ground, face first. He then left
her and marched away with the other policemen and Tucker. The police
officers threw Tucker into the back of their van and took him away.
Bill Lee: "It was the first book I'd read, but then it was strange to
see the words written down, because when my daughter wrote it down in text
form, I had it in a box on the front seat. I was taking it over to my
agent, and I just sat looking at it. And Sylvia said to me - she was
sitting in the back of the car - she said, 'What's wrong?' I said, 'It's a
very,very strange feeling. The people in this book: my father's in there
and all the uncles and people we knew, all these people are in here. For
the last three years they'd been in my head, and I'd been talking to them,
working with them. I said, 'They're here, but I can't communicate with them
any more. They're here, but they're asleep and I can't wake them up.' I was
just looking at the pages. I knew then that I had to learn to read, because
I had to wake them up again. And that's when I started reading the
Oral and written forms - a meeting of two worlds
Bill's work has successfully made the transition from an oral to a written
form. But when his daughter made the transcript she obviously had to do
much more than just write the words as they were recorded. Spoken language
is flexible and has few rules, thoughts, concepts and memories flow from
the mind and intermingle in conversation with others. In a culture in
which knowledge is stored in the mind and not in books, where there are no
letters or e mails and all discourse is verbal, the times that people get
together and talk are all the more important. David Morley is a poet,
scientist, academic and the director of the writing programme at Warwick
University in the United Kingdom. His mother told fortunes on Blackpool pleasure beach
and he well remembers the vibrancy and energy generated when his Romany
family all got together under one roof.
David Morley: "It's like a lot of eloquent seagulls, all wanting to
sound off in the same space. It's both fantastic and colourful and moving
and interesting, and also deafening. You'd partly want to run away from it
and find the silence amongst all of this talk."
In that banter that was going on in the room, what comes out of it is
maybe more than the sum of its parts. It's like a recipe - chuck all the
ingredients in a keep stirring and something appears in the middle of it,
something precipitates out of it.
David Morley: "Usually what precipitates out of it is one clear and
startling story that might or might not be true, but usually is true,
about which we can all agree - and no action about it. If you're looking
for the one thing that crystallizes out of it, it's usually one or two
terrible stories about terrible things that have been done to your family,
that have happened, about which we continue to talk and continue to laugh
and joke even, but over which no direct action is then taken. We're all,
by our talk, walking away from direct action.
"I think I rebelled against that to some degree in the choices of
things that I then went on to do. Particularly in politics and education I
was dismayed by the lack of action that speech always leads to in those
circumstances. You actually need to take on some of this stuff - speak
about it and write about it, write journalism about it, educate people
about it, and even write poems about it - because that reaches an audience
that politics and journalism don't reach.
"One of the things that is coming out of this is that a lot of the
issues to do with Romaniness are actually driven by anger. I actually
spend most of my time controlling that anger, and it's poems that conduct
it, I think, and stop me from lashing out.
"This is an extract from a short poem that opens up with a scene,
that very kind of scene, where all your relatives are there, being as
garrulous as possible, and what's happened? Well what's happened is that
somebody in the family has recently died. It's basically a funeral wake.
The conversation is scintillating, it's brilliant, it's incredibly funny,
and everybody's not talking about what's really happened. I then start
talking about whether we should do something about how this particular
person has died, and the response is that we're too small to do anything,
we're small people. So, what had happened? There were these circumstances.
My grandmother had actually been murdered by a care worker, who worked for
the NHS (National Health Service) and then disappeared, almost immediately
after her death, and at the funeral we talked about everything but this. So
with this you have the great escapism of talk."
by David Morley
Our family eats the funeral sandwiches: pink paste and white bread
saucy uncles pinch at their bits of tobacco.
They fall, clawing at fake
heart-attacks, each time I come up to them.
We are in the kitchen of my
dead grandmother's maisonette.
Her sisters squawk about compensation,
weather and the Third Eye.
Brian Belton: "If you live in a hostile society, where if you do tell
the truth you will be punished for that truth, you find ways of telling
truth to people who deserve the truth or you feel deserve the truth. So
there's a kind of truth in the stereotypes about lies."
The fact that Dr Brian Belton's father was a Gypsy and his mother came
from the East End of London may be one reason why he decided to explore
the question of Gypsy Traveller ethnicity in his doctoral thesis. In so
doing he has challenged many previously accepted theories and truths. He
is well aware that almost every academic book that is concerned with Gypsy
culture or history has been written by non Gypsies. He is also very aware
of the cultural gulf that exists between different groups in society,
particularly between oral and literate cultures which added to the class
divide and the Gypsy's general desire to keep their ways to themselves all
provide very fertile ground for misunderstanding, ignorance and prejudice.
Brian Belton: "How many books written on Gypsies have been full of
people writing down what Gypsies have told them: an oral culture - an
intensely oral culture - talking to an intensely written culture. Why
should anybody think that that will be something called the truth? Why do
you think that? But it's in the library, it's on the shelf, and that's
what informs people. It's an empire of written words. It's an empire of
writing, that exists separately from people like my dad. Here's a man
whose mum was a Gypsy, he came from a society of traditional Gypsies going
back hundreds of years, and yet he will pick it up and say, 'This is a load
of bollocks.' But, you see, there's no-one going to publish that."
In western sedentary culture the written word has primacy. Knowledge is
recorded in books and libraries are society's storehouses of ideas and
information, all learned institutions have libraries at their heart. It is
through the written word that theories are advanced and academic discourse
takes place. Our laws, our history, and our knowledge as well as the works
of our great novelists and poets are all protected within the permanence of
bound volumes. For those who have been brought up in a literate society,
the depths and substance of an oral culture can be difficult to perceive,
knowledge which is carried in the collective memory of a community and
communicated and developed by word of mouth can seem fragile, transient
and only vaguely discernible against the robust and unarguable presence of
words on a page.
But what of the subtleties of the spoken word with its mannerisms,
inflections, insinuations, half truths and flights of fancy?. It is not
moulded, refined and considered in the same way that words are composed
for the page, it is transient and improvised, sparring and challenging. It
is an arena inhabited by eloquent seagulls in which truth rubs against
fiction and the edges between the two become blurred.
Brian Belton: "One thing about my dad was that he could tell anyone
anything. Other people would say that's because he was a Gypsy, a rascally
rogue. He was a terrible liar, and he was able to tell someone something
about themselves or somebody else or the world, and they'd totally believe
it. He had a gift to do it, and he got a buzz out of it. You know, a
storyteller can manipulate the person they're telling the story to. They
learn to do it quite young - I don't think it's something you pick up when
you're 48. You know, I was brought up to tell lies. We were told constantly
not to tell that person the truth - don't tell the authorities the truth,
just tell them what they need to know. We had it drummed into us, and I
don't think I'm alone in that. In fact I know I'm not. You tell them
stories. You find out what clicks into people's mind and you tell them the
story they want to hear. A lot of Gypsies are good at that."
Tera Fabianova's son Vojta has inherited his mothers creative talents, he
sings traditional Roma songs but he also writes his own about what the
Roma experience in Prague today. He is one of a new generation who is
informed by the music, songs and storytelling of the older generation but
is still very much a man of today.
[SINGS]: Winter is drawing close, it's going to get cold. Light
me a fire, not too big a fire, not too small a fire, just a fire to warm
my soul. Romanies, what are we going to do in the cold winter? And then
the chorus answers: We'll go into the mountains, and we'll find shelter
beneath the rock, where the wind doesn't blow so strong. And there we'll
take the children in our arms."
(Traditional Romany song)
Vojta Fabian: "I grew up with music from my earliest childhood and
from the age of three dad gave me a squeeze-box. I used to go and sit
outside the windows of the pub, where everybody would be singing inside
the latest songs - drunkenly. And I'd sit outside, I'd learn the songs and
play them. I knew all the rock'n'roll songs."
"I've got no money,
I've got no work because I'm black.
Life is bad because I'm a black Gypsy.
The cops are on their way, so I'd better run.
Why do I steal? I have no choice.
Run, Jo, run, and take that piece of meat with you!!"
(Lyrics by Vojta Fabian - rough translation)
Vojta Fabian: "This is quite simply a song from life. That's what
it's like now. That's what life is like for Gypsies today!"
Hester Hedges: "I know that there are secrets that have died with my
granddad, and they are Gypsy secrets as well. If you get a man who's
really rich in culture, but being a Gypsy, apart from loving and taking
care of people, it's a very inward feeling, especially with the men.
There's so much that they're very wise with, but they don't necessarily
share all of that. There's something that they have inside, but it's not
exactly something that is actually written down, and it does die with
Bill Lee: "I was wrestling with what I was doing. Was it right for me
to be doing it? It didn't feel right. I used to ask my father if it was ok.
I knew he wasn't too happy about it, because we grew up keeping ourselves
to ourselves, not letting people know too much. Even when it went for
publication, I'm still thinking - did I do right?"
Hester Hedges: "If they never pass that on, because of the way the
culture works, then we will actually miss that. You know, just things that
we will never experience any more, and it's those things that we need to
keep. Even though I do believe that the culture will move and adapt, we've
still got all that stuff we don't actually want to lose."
Andrej Gina: "In Rokycany, there used to be a very cultivated,
educated man, Dr Jagr. He got on very, very well with Roma, especially
children. He would come to us. Once, mum was telling old Roma stories. He
heard it and was impressed. He said it should be written down. I remember
to this day a comparison he made. He said, 'Andrej, look. There's an old
church in Rokycany. It is full of history, and if it were demolished, then
we would also lose something. It's the same if a story is lost.' This
captured my imagination. I talked about it with my mother. I recorded her
telling the stories and then I wrote it down. But I wrote them in Czech.
Milena Hubschmannova came and said, 'Try writing in Romany.' I tried it. I
think it worked. It was the right thing to do."
THE WOODEN ROSE
by Hester Hedges
And we all shared a summer:
She and I, we worked
the fields in common years.
For me, the sun still
brings warmth and light.
But not for her.
The field, a pleasant walk,
it's stillness silencing our idle chat,
us lazy, sat on hay,
or under trees
that sheltered us
from rain and
They stand still,
her lavender lips,
resting by clouds.
the end of every evening
song brought new meaning
to old words.
Until it happened -
Quite quickly it seemed to me,
the idiot I am, who now can only just
how that summer died...
Our people travelled far
when fields were bare
I watched her life fold away,
the water churns and
Than my castles in the sky.
Mounted lines of moving horses
took her off for winter
with nothing left
no gift for us to keep
lest we forget -
Only a wooden rose,
carved by those tiny fingers:
it lies undisturbed upon
amid the dried plants
taken from a summer's breeze
far and wide.
When a new haze decides to come
I take out my wooden promise
and look at
the days that quickly went
sleeping on a bed of heather.
'Gipsy': "Roma culture is many things. It's language, music, maybe
it's how we were, and I don't think that all these elements should
survive. I'm looking in the future, I'm not looking in the past. The past
is behind me."
Hester Hedges: "The older generation of travellers should really
believe that what they instil in their youngsters is going to stay there,
and I think that they'll realise that younger Gypsies have to adapt. And
that might be in the language they use. But I just don't think that the
things that you teach your children are lost that easily. I just think
that people will find a way without feeling that they have to abandon what
being a Gypsy is."
'Gipsy': "I'm rapping, I'm not playing in a Roma band. The question
is, why not? You know, on my album there are a lot of instrumentals from
Roma culture. You know, I didn't miss my music. I just changed it to the