Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Five Leaves and Traveller books

Five Leaves has, over the years, published a handful of books by or about Travellers, and the our new bookshop has a small section devoted to Roma and other Travellers. I'll come to the books in a minute.
There are a number of ethnic groups of Travellers in the UK. Historically this has included bargees (a more or less extinct group though I've met one or two of their descendants), showmen, Irish Travellers, Scottish Travellers and Romanichals, the latter being the mainstream "Gypsy" community in Britain. Romanichals have the same origins as the Roma from Eastern Europe that have been coming here in significant numbers in recent years. It is this final group who have become the latest threat-to-civilisation-as-we-know-it. For many years their culture was suppressed under Communism, but free-market capitalism brought to the surface both age-old fears and out and out racism. The British Romani community has long been cut off from its East European equivalent and, through a degree of assimilation, or partial assimilation, and intermarriage, has lost Romani as an inflected language but still use it as a pogadi jib ("broken tongue"). There are writers of Romani background, including the novelist Louise Doughty and the poet David Morley. These two draw on their origins and use Romani words in their work. There are even more with a partial Traveller background, including a number of young adult fiction writers I know who, perhaps, have inherited the Traveller storytelling tradition.
Recent scares include the renewal of the Romani "blood libel" equivalent, that Gypsies will steal your children. The most recent of these involved two Roma families in Ireland whose "white" children were stolen by the state only to find that DNA testing showed their parents were, well, their parents.
This trope is long standing. The Nottingham (ironically, Jewish) writer Rose Fyleman - whose poetry Five Leaves published - wrote a children's book, I forget which one, which had the heroine passing a Gypsy encampment, then coming across a baby in its cot, drawing the conclusion that the Gypsies must have stolen the baby and the girl took it to the police. That the culprit was a nursemaid dallying with her boyfriend is irrelevant - the issue is that this was natural to immediately suspect Gypsies of stealing babies. I can't find my copy, but don't remember them getting an apology when they were found to be uninvolved!
If you are new to this world perhaps the best book to read is Ian Hancock's We are the Romani People (University of Hertfordshire, 2002), a basic history of the diverse Romani world. Readers of Ian's book will note that it is usually Romani children who have been stolen, enslaved and in some cases transported.
Ian himself is a Romanischal. He was from a London family but lives in America where he is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, one of only two English-speaking Romani professors in the world. Interestingly, he is also fluent in Yiddish, and used to teach the language. He is also fluent in the major Romani dialects.
Ian wrote the introduction to the Five Leaves book Settela, translated from Dutch by the Romani Janna Eliot. The original book is by Aad Wagenaar. Aad wanted to trace the story of a well known Dutch Holocaust image, of a young girl looking back from a train heading towards Auschwitz. Who was she, what happened to her? Assuming she was Jewish initially, Aad discovered she had been Settela Steinbach, a Sinti girl (Sintis are a particular Romani "tribe" - excuse the shorthand description). She was murdered on 31st July 1944. Aad traced her story, and those of her surviving family and their attempts to trace her fate after the war.
Janna wrote a further book for Five Leaves, Spokes, a series of short stories fictionalising true stories of individuals across the entire Traveller world, including from her own Russian musical family.
The third book is the autobiographical Beneath the Blue Skies by Dominic Reeve, a partially Romani man who literally ran away to join the Gypsies to avoid conscription. He married the Romani artist Beshlie. This book is a memoir of the 1960s, when Romanies left behind the "wagon years" as stopping places began to be closed to them and traditional trades died out, turning to automated transport and other trades such as scrap-dealing and motor repair. Dominic, now at an advanced age, is still selling compost door to door.
Publishing these books - we should have done more - and having a Traveller section in the bookshop is important to me. My mother's family were Scottish Travellers in origin, at least in part. She was born in a hamlet next door to a Romani family and my childhood was full of "Gypsy" friends. Indeed, until the age of seventeen we always had a trailer, living part of the year in it. The links are long gone, but as a nod to that past I keep an interest in the Traveller world.
As someone living in the outside world I have come across, and challenged, people referring to pikeys, to gippoes. Scottish Travellers are not a Romani ethnic group (nor are the unrelated Irish Travellers) but to hear the current vile or veiled comments by politicians and the press is an invitation to solidarity. We saw this scapegoating in the press before over the Dale Farm eviction of Irish Travellers and see it now against Roma desperate to leave a world where education, employment and in some cases access to water and sanitation is impossible for them. Scottish Travellers, in recent times, have not been persecuted, are literate and form part of the diversity of Scotland. Now, more than ever, I am pleased that we published these books and have a small, but prominent Traveller section in the bookshop.


Gravediggin' Under the Mancy Way said...

Hey Rose, my family are of mixed Romany/Scottish Traveller/Jewish origin- I was involved in the publication of a collection of poetry/fiction/photography/art "Gypsy Storytellers" which was published with the aim of raising money for the people of Dale Farm...
I've read two of Dominic Reeve's autobiographical books (Smoke in the Lanes/Green Lanes and Kettle Cranes)- absolutely agree we need a section in workshops to promote work by Gypsy/Traveller writers.
I have't heard of your publishing company until now, having found it via the almighty Google...;-)

Gravediggin' Under the Mancy Way said...

Ross- not Rose:one too many ciders and a few to many typos later...