Gypsies form a marginal group in society that literally lives on the margins – on roadsides, in car parks, at illicit sites in the countryside (sometimes buying agricultural land and putting up buildings in defiance of the planning laws). Also popularly known as Romanies, they call themselves Romanichals in England (Kale in Wales and Nawkens in Scotland). They are supposed to have originated in India about a thousand years ago, consolidated their culture and language in Turkey (“Rom”, which may possibly be where they get the name Romany) and arrived in England in the sixteenth century calling themselves the Lords of Little Egypt.
Above: group of caravans parked on the roadside verge. You can see one of the traditional horse-drawn covered wagons, which is known as a vardo. The inhabitants of these temporary encampments live out in the open, under the gaze of the surrounding population – I once saw a young gypsy woman brushing her teeth in the open, ignoring the passing rush-hour traffic only a few feet away.
Above: This sign, in the middle of nowhere, suggests an attempt to record the traditions, character and rituals of the community (in reality, there is little record of this enigmatic culture, and because the community tends not to produce intellectuals much of their history has been lost). I have never been to the museum. Gypsies provoke extreme reactions wherever they go. Historically they wandered about the country helping with the harvest. More than any other section of the population they represent the “other” in our midst, unassimilated even after four centuries. Professor Roger Lockyer has written about “the terror of the tramp” that emerged in the sixteenth century and the various Poor Laws meant to control the phenomenon, which makes me wonder whether the arrival of the gypsies was a catalyst for this legislation.
Above: Gypsies are also associated with travelling shows, although “showfolk” seem to regard themselves as a sub-section of the culture, with their own rules and traditions.
Above: Gypsy style has recently influenced high street fashion.
Above: The Suppliants, the expulsion of the gypsies from Spain (1872 painting by Edwin Longsden Long, now in the Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway College). Gypsies have always been regarded as pariahs subject to casual and official persecution. Legislation in the United Kingdom in the 1990s abandoned any official attempt to provide sites for gypsies, making inevitable clashes between travelling groups of gypsies and local communities (leading to violence on both sides). Whatever the provocations initiated by the gypsies (parking illegally, committing petty crimes, leaving stupendous amounts of trash and litter), it is undeniable that the government has behaved very irresponsibly in leaving them to confront local householders in a struggle for resources. The government is basically saying to gypsies and rural communities: fight it out between yourselves. The government doesn’t care about gypsies and certainly doesn’t care about rural communities (they cynically don’t care because they don’t see any votes for New Labour).
Above: Gypsy religion seems to be a form of Christianity intermingled with various superstitious practices. For example, Sir James Frazer records that a gypsy family will get rid of bad luck by placing small items into a box and then leaving the box to be found by a stranger who thus acquires the bad luck (or illness) – is this the origin of Pandora’s Box? Fortune telling seems to be a gypsy tradition.
Above: The 1976 film Gypsies are found near heaven is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Directed by Emil Lotvanu it is based on the stories by the writer Maxim Gorky. Set in a gypsy camp on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is the sort of film that should be shown on Film Four (about to be re-launched as a free service).