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Blood and belonging

“The gorjers (non-Romanys) that various family members married were tolerated, even loved; but there was family, and there was blood-family.”
Auntie Flo killed her brother-in-law.

It happened not long after her mother had succumbed to pneumonia. Auntie Flo’s mum, my great-aunt Bess, lived in a council house on the outskirts of Peterborough. She had a slate fireplace and either side of that slate fireplace sat two china dogs. ‘Mum said to me, quite often,’ Auntie Flo confided, ‘that when she passed over to the other side, those china dogs would be mine, the pair of them.’

We were sitting in Auntie Flo’s lounge, the front room of the tiny brick house she lived in with her husband, a man whose name I can’t recall on account of the fact that he never emerged from the kitchen during family visits. He just sat at the kitchen table eating sandwiches on his own.

My father and I had arrived around half an hour before. I was researching my fifth novel, Stone Cradle (2006), about our family history – English Romanichals, Cambridgeshire Smiths, to be precise – and he had offered to help by taking me to see relatives, which was generous of him as he disliked me talking about our family publicly. ‘You want to be more careful, you’ve got two children to think of. You’ll get a brick through your window.’

Auntie Flo was my father’s cousin, and I was hoping she would have some family stories to tell. All my other aunties did; after all, they had them coming out of their ears.

‘So,’ Auntie Flo said, ‘after Mum passed away, I took those china dogs for safe keeping, and when my sister found out, she was livid. She said she had always wanted those dogs, and I said, ‘Mum said I was to have them,’ and she accused me of making it up. Mum not yet buried and my own sister calling me a liar. So come the funeral, I wrapped those dogs in newspaper and after we’d lowered Mum into the grave, I went up to my sister and I put them into her hands and I said, ‘There you are, and may you never have a day’s luck with them.’’

At this point, Auntie Flo leaned forward. My father, sitting next to me on the clammy settee, lowered his teacup. Auntie Flo whispered: ‘And, well, the very next week, her husband died. Just dropped dead for no reason, just like that. Well, I did feel a bit bad after that, and your Uncle Tommy said “Flo, Flo”, he said, “You’ve got to be more careful what you say.’’’

‘You put the ‘fluence on him,’ agreed my father, nodding, although I knew he didn’t credit a word of it. Uncle Tommy on the other hand, who only lived a couple of miles away, was a firm believer in the fact that our family had special powers. We had visited Uncle Tommy that morning and he told me that when someone went missing in suspicious circumstances in Peterborough, he went into the police station and told them he had had a vision of where the body was buried. The police were very grateful for his help, he said, and had apologised for not being able to thank him publicly, on account of how Cambridgeshire Constabulary had to pretend it was detective work that caught murderers, rather than Psychic Tommy from Dogsthorpe.

I took a sip from my cup of tea. It had a sour tinge – the milk was off.

‘My mother always said she’d beat the Gypsy out of me …’ Auntie Flo continued, in much the same casual tone. ‘Whenever I was bad, she’d take a stick to my back and try to beat it out of me, but she never did. Do you want something to eat with that cup of tea?’

My father wobbled his hand. ‘No, you’re alright Flo,’ he said. ‘We’d best be off soon.’

As we left, we glimpsed Auntie Flo’s husband through the kitchen door, his mouth wide, about to cram in a sandwich.

‘Dordy, dik the mush,’ my father said, shaking his head as we walked to the car, ‘Did you see the cakehole on that?’ He wasn’t impressed that Auntie Flo’s husband was eating while we were in the house – even though he had declined the offer of something himself – but then Auntie Flo had married a gorjer, so what could you expect?

If Romany Travellers were on one side and gorjers (non-Romanies) on the other, the position of my generation was blurry. Our family had been house-dwellers since the start of the last century – my father and most of his cousins, of which there were a considerable number, had been born and raised in brick. In the nineteenth century, their ancestors had travelled from one harvest to the next throughout the rural calendar, working as horse dealers and scissor grinders when there was no farm work to be had, living in vardos or, occasionally, in ditches by the side of the road. In common with many Romanichals, they had found that with increased mechanisation, the old ways of earning a living dried up. Instead, they became market traders, junk shop owners and used car dealers – all professions for which it was not wise to let on you were Romany. My father had left school at thirteen and began working as an apprentice painter and decorator but later took an external degree at Nottingham University and became an engineer. His grandfather on his father’s side had grown up in a workhouse where he went by the name of Pauper 57. Romanies and paupers, that was his ancestry, and having made it to working class I doubt there was a man alive in England so determined his children would become middle class – but that’s a whole other story.

It had been childhood visits to the aunts and uncles that introduced me to our family ancestry. The gorjers that various family members married were tolerated, even loved; but there was family, and there was blood-family. My Uncle Samuel, Dad’s brother, once regarded my two daughters, pointed at the elder and said to my partner, ‘That one, she’s yours …’ Then he stared solemnly at the younger, who at that stage was a beautiful, bad-tempered toddler with a mop of Shirley Temple curls, ‘But that one, she’s ours …’ Before adding under his breath, ‘Particularly when she’s got a mard on her, aye.’ I looked at my little girl and saw exactly what he meant. When she was cross, she looked just like Auntie Nell.

If blood was not something you could acquire, neither was it something you could escape. You could be beaten for it, derided by outsiders – shot or gassed by the Nazis. And you could be protected by it, having a clan that would stand by you, thick or thin. You could also kill your own brother-in-law if you cussed too carelessly. But talk to a Traveller who grew up on site, or a European Roma who abides by romanes – the Roma laws that condition conduct and, above all, cleanliness and purity – and they will tell you our lot were half-n-halfs at best, more likely, didakois. Mongrels, outcasts – the only thing a true-blood Romanichal would have had in common with a gorjer is that they would both think of us as dids. It isn’t a compliment. You only needed to be one-eighth Romany to be murdered by the Nazis alongside Jewish people, disabled people, gay people and others but you needed to be a great deal more than that to be accepted by other Romanies.

How then, do inheritors of Romany culture who come from families like mine, who settled and inter-married, define their sense of belonging? How do those who grew up on Traveller sites, facing relentless exclusion and prejudice, feel when their place in the world has, historically, been defined by outsiders? Those were among the questions I posed to the six very individual writers who make up this edition of WritersMosaic. They come from a variety of backgrounds but have in common not only a blood inheritance but a vivid awareness of it – although their feelings about it vary. The playwright and traditional storyteller Richard O’Neill feels, like poet Raine Geoghegan, that writing comes from the storytelling learned in childhood – a rich and vibrant tradition in an oral culture that in many ways still is. Author Damien Le Bas has an ambivalent relationship to the concept of blood, and activist and writer Rosaleen McDonagh from Ireland has more reason than most to be suspicious of the concept of belonging based on it: the vessel for blood is the body, and she is someone who has fought disability discrimination all her life, alongside anti-Traveller prejudice – an intersectional double-whammy. Like Rosaleen, Jake Bowers has channelled the prejudice he has faced into activism, becoming one of the leading journalists and filmmakers to challenge prejudice in the media. And Jo Clements has produced award-winning poetry while becoming a respected academic. Collectively, all these writers form a glorious two-fingered salute to the Gypsy/Romany/Traveller stereotypes. Pigeonhole us at your peril.

The written pieces here are like shards of a kaleidoscope: no sooner have they formed a pattern than they turn and re-form again. If there is a defining factor in GRT culture, it is its indefinability – there has not been room to begin to address the multiplicity of the European Roma and Sinti experience, of around sixty different groups who speak as many dialects. We are only a few pieces of the kaleidoscope – don’t try and draw any firm conclusions, or fix us into any image, just enjoy the shapes we make before we move on.

Louise Doughty

Louise Doughty is the author of ten novels, including Fires in the Dark, about the Romany Holocaust, and Stone Cradle, based on her own English Romanichal background. Of her other books, Apple Tree Yard was a number one bestseller and adapted as a major BBC One series starring Emily Watson; Platform Seven has been filmed for ITV. She also created and wrote the hit series Crossfire, starring Keeley Hawes. She has been nominated for multiple awards including the Costa Novel Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Sunday Times Short Story Prize. Her work has been translated into thirty languages.

© Louise Doughty