Friday, 23 December 2011

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

I was born in the wagon of a traveling show
My momma used to dance for the money they'd throw
Papa would do whatever he could
Preach a little Gospel, sell a couple bottles of Dr. Good

Gypsies, tramps and thieves
We'd hear it from the people of the town
They'd call us, gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

So sang Cher, and that song illustrates just how most people think of the itinerant race we call Gypsies.

I come from Gypsy stock myself, on my maternal grandmother's side. I've traced their lineage back over 250 years so far, and the family history is fascinating. OK, so my grandmother was 'settled' - no longer travelling, but living in a house; but other members of the family were show folk and circus people, or workers travelling from farm to farm, following the crop seasons, and hopefully earning enough money to sustain their family during the lean Winter months.

I've always known about our Gypsy heritage, but I never really understood what happened to turn an honest itinerant way of life into the much maligned 'traveller' image that we see today.

And I don't mean that I despise travellers or their way of life, just that other people evidently do.
Now I have a better understanding, and it's down to a friend pointing me in the direction of a book which she thought might reference my family, as it's a Gypsy history of South London and Kent.

Stopping Places, by Simon Evans, is more than just a history of travelling families in this area, it does a lot to explain why the traditional Gypsy way of life is being eradicated. It describes the life of these people, living in bender tents and horse-drawn vardos, until the mechanisation of farming began to reduce the need for casual labour. At the same time, traditional stopping places were being closed off, and more and more Gypsies were being forced onto permanent sites - often closely resembling concentration camps in their bleak outlook.

Simon Evans' clear sighted and compassionate account of the changes imposed on the age-old Gypsy culture is all the more powerful for the inclusion of over 170 photographs, together with vivid first-hand accounts of the recent Gypsy experience.

rating: 5/5

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