Tuesday, 1 October 2013

grand tents and bare shoulders: the gypsies


April 25-27th
June 13th-15th
Aug 1-3rd
Oct 3-5th
Dec 5-7th

Contact Tina at Tina.schoolofmyth@yahoo.com today for the details of what will be our most inventive and wildest dive/year course yet. We also have just a few places left for the right-about-to happen PARZIVAL weekend too - a telling that takes two and a half days, and embossed with troubadour, Islamic, and medieval english history arising as we saddlebag our trusty Andalusian ponies up the dark ridged and blue-snowed heaven that is this story. C'mon, reach for the kitbag and join us. Last ever telling before the book comes out, and this little secret we have been brewing in the distillery of our imagination for half-a-decade becomes a secret no more.

some slight teaser from the upcoming Snowy Tower (Parzival) book - as the land turns to waste...

Hounds call from the lonely copse,
The old womans hair is frail under the silver comb.
The gravediggers spade is bright with use,
no beards are wet with ale.

The wattle-hut is cold,
and broken open to the roaming candles of the stars.
All dream of honey-bread, a hearth fire,
a ploughing harvest of fish and corn.
The rain is grey and steady.

And the arrival of Parzival's beloved, Condwiramurs...

Ah, the moon.
A gold-scattered track in the young mans den.
He a shivering lamb
at the warm stable of her becoming.

But she wants a Lion.

Breast tight with desire,
Lusty peaks, not yet
for the quiet sucking
of a child.

In this place of bone-light
and sickle-fire, our
Lady of the Waves
harps her music, snow-naked
with power
into the boys ear.

And the final arrival at the Grail Castle...

Praise to the bright girdle of the land,
its seal-proud coast,
and cold blue crest of stars,
zodiac dazzling.

Pull close to the shepherds milky dreaming,
his grove a-hum, dingle-hot,
with the woodlarks wanton speech.

Buckle our knees to the glinting pool
and to dusky light, to beehives,
and cairns of badgers,
delirious with sleep.

Praise to the Maymed Kynge,
Praise to the Healed King,
Praise to the Holy Maker
of all things.

And this week something on west country gypsies.

The People of the Roads

It was 1505 when a genuine nomadic consciousness arrived in Britain in the shape of “exotically attired Egyptians” (Simpson 1865). Any brief fascination with the gypsies turned cold when Edward VI ordered all gypsies living in Britain to be rounded up and branded with a V for ‘vagabond’ on their chest, and then thrown into slavery for two years. Children were seized at an Englishman’s discretion and put into service to save them from an environment of ‘rogues and beggars’. For a culture that had travelled through Byzantium and Greece, through the Ukraine and Spain, from Persia and Transylvania, this was a savage but not entirely unfamiliar welcome to a certain type of English temperament.

The gypsies brought plenty of spook with them. The reading of hands, the sallow skin, narrow headed lurchers, the wagons, the rouged cheek and dark plait, the bare-knuckle etiquette, not to mention “tigress eyes”, according to Henry Williamson in his Life in a Devon Village. Gypsies soon became the largest migratory group of travellers in the west country.

They became kings and queens of fairs and revels: Stow, Bampton and Bridgewater all had fairs that featured the grand tents and wild fiddle tunes of the travelling Roma. For the men, coats were long and black, with plush, brightly coloured waistcoats, velvet knee-breeches and brogues. Come the evening, the women turned the volume up still further, with amber feathers tucked into turbans, white satin dresses, bare shoulders covered by multi-coloured shawls. Bottles were uncorked, howls thrown at the moon, and the gutsy dancing ached the feet but thrilled the soul.

As long as the gypsies remained as travelling exotics, as symbols of a kind of freedom that many secretly covet, then they enjoyed an uneasy peace. Problems would deepen with a kind of quasi-settling on the edges of town – due to agricultural depression from the 1880s – which meant it was more efficient to stay put in desperate times. The glamour fades a little when the occasional chicken gets stolen, or wallet relieved of its bragging owner. You start to notice the tattered edges on the edge of those grand tents. Everyone loves a scapegoat, and who better than those dark-eyed, strange-tongued travellers at the edge of town?

To be gypsy was to watch your myths travel ahead five paces of you wherever you want. A strong look. It could fill the tent on a Saturday night's dancing, get young women paying over the odds to have their cards read on matters of love, but it could also have you picking your teeth out of the cobbles, it could have your children pulled right from your grasp. The open road was like a plump vein to them, a trail full of nourishing blood, but also a duende vocation, carrying sorrow and pride alongside, a mottled, magpied glory of hard earned eloquence. Maps were not used, rather a nomadic homing instinct, looking for the old resting places, Dannal’s Basin in the Mendips, or Ember Pond further west. To the locals it was hard to make out a pattern to the wandering, but they had their own kind of song-lines, their own way of getting where they needed to get to. Much of the movement was seasonal, and to do with hop picking, fruit picking, and onto the horse fairs.

The language is delicious, an honour to have it spoken in England or enjoyed on the page:

Wusto-mengresky tem Wrestler’s country, Devonshire
Lil-engresky gav Book fellows' town, Oxford
Rokrengreskey gav Talking fellows' town, Norwich
Mi-develskey gav My God’s town, Canterbury

I spent the latter half of my twenties fairly frequently around travelling people. My tent was originally situated near a stopping off point for travellers coming down from areas of Wales and into England. This could be as simple as a horse drawn cart arriving, almost silently, at dusk, or waking up to find a vast array of trucks, children and hastily erected benders filling the lane in the early dawn light. Within hours the music would begin, the relentless thump of techno rather than the lilt of the fiddle, and frequently a kind of chaos that was not edifying. This was nothing to do with “back to the land” it was a kind of truck life, an occasionally nightmarish mirror to the very straight laced environment of the Cotwolds they saw stretched out in front of them. They kind of suited each other. With each hot headed police clash, both sides lumbered out for battle, each needing the other in some way. This was not Roma culture, not Irish traveller, but a kind of dilapidated council estate on wheels.

That sounds harsh, but anyone who has been in close contact with this element of the travelling community knows the truth of what I’m writing.

For every quiet and reasonably sober traveller that came through, these occasional terror-hoards were the ones who would amp up the locals, pitch up for battle and leave a bad atmosphere for years to come.

When a society rejects something, it invites it to turn ugly. If the concept of people living under canvas, or on the road, is utterly unacceptable, then myth tells us it will regress - what was once beautifully wild turns savage. This is what I am describing. Any culture worthy of the name positions initiations, fayres, art, music, as conduits between the margins and the centre. This is an old truth. It is a way of handling and being edified by wildness, but keeping the kids safe and healthy. It is mediation of the spontaneous, the unexpected, the liminal, back into the place of the village. Living in a time like this, is it any surprise we get the viking masses at the Roman gates ready to play out this scene again and again?

It is too easy to label the earlier descriptions of Roma as nostalgia. It is more than that. It is a recognition. It is a longing. They are beset by just as many issues as the English, but they have been emblematic, mythically tuned to represent a certain kind of openness to un-shackled freedom.

The gypsies came to this country at an auspicious time, partially to remind us of something that we were in danger of losing. This kind of grotesque mimic that I have just described makes me wonder whether it has now gone. Gypsies have been a vivid mirror of otherness in this country for over four hundred years, and our resolute failure to engage reasonably with them has helped create this cartoon-junkie on wheels caricature that this small, but noisy set of travellers represent. They’re us, we made them.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013


rosierabbit said...

every course announcement causing antipodean heart ache and the running of deep rivers of longing....teaching in australia sometime.........please?

roselle said...

Excellent blog on gypsies, Martin. In my late 20s and early 30s I spent time around both sorts, and the heavies-on-wheels sure as hell made everything much worse for the low-key 'real' travellers who simply wanted out of our wasted culture's materialistic values. They - the techno-trash-dumping-travellers - were as responsible for the Criminal Justice Act's stranglehold on nomads as the bourgeoisie, sadly. So hard now to live in a vagabonding way in England. - Roselle