This delightful book sees Romany Damian Le Bas follow in his gran’s footsteps, stopping at atchin tans, the old Romany stopping places.
Granny did it with horse-drawn wagons and bender tents, doing seasonal work, Le Bas does it in a Ford Transit (the compulsory Traveller conveyance) doing music videos and appearing on Radio Four’s Today.
Le Bas grew up in a way many would stereotype as typical Romany, his family selling flowers and living in a yard with cars in varying degrees of repair, and he learned to ride and drive ponies, play the spoons and rokker Ramanes — speak Romani, words and phrases of which appear throughout the book.
But he’s atypical too: his parents sent him off to private school — he won a scholarship — and he studied theology at Oxford. He’s edited the Romany magazine and is married to Candis Nergaard, an actor who’s been on the telly.
While he can trace his Romany roots back through generations he recently had some gorjer (non-gypsy) blood sneak into his lineage and doesn’t look Romany.
So the story is partly about his search for authenticity, and he starts off fearful about heading off on his own in the Transit, consciously unlike a proper Traveller (pronounced Travller, two syllables) who never stays in one place. He admits to feeling dinlo (foolish) as he hits the drom (road), but by the end of the book the Transit is home, having taken him down to Cornwall, across to France and even to what seems like a Romany Mecca, North Wales, where the Romany language is still spoken. (As it is by Romanians, with whom he can converse).
He’s a poetic writer but never waffles so he’s an entertaining and intelligent host. Indeed, he seems more at home writing down his own thoughts than meeting other Travellers, contact often being limited to conspiratorial nods and waves on the road.
He’s good on the reality of Romany life, from the old tales and traditions to the talking about people to their faces by using Romany (“Atch on, the mollisha’s dinlo” or “Carry on, the woman’s foolish”), and the fistfights and rivalries. He’s equally good on the more surprising elements of Romany life, the cleanliness and hygiene (perhaps dating back to their Indian roots) and the fact that for such free people they have a lot of rules to live by.
He also tackles racism; clearly picking on anyone because of what they look like is wrong but Romanies are often tarred with the same brush as their less scrupulous fellow wanderers. Some Irish Travellers in England can be vile (and their Irish peers dislike them equally, calling them English), so the prejudice is not always irrational.
Le Bas rightly says that all peoples have their ne’er do wells and he too suffers at the hands of wrong ‘uns: finding a spot to park at the famous Appleby fair, he’s forced to leave when threatened by some ruffians; they calm down but intimate that even less unfriendly folk are on site. He legs it rather than take the chance.
He’s livid at the injustice of it but can see that it’s the individuals not the nation that’s in the wrong. A non-Gypsy meeting such bad behaviour would possibly judge all Travellers by that standard.
Still, that moment of aggression is a one-off and on the whole Le Bas meets either no-one, or friendliness and curiosity, and the book is mainly nostalgic: Le Bas is remembering his own heritage but that’s closely tied to the rural heritage of England, when farming was more important and farmers welcomed itinerant pickers who turned up every year to gather in the crops.