Where there is a will there is a way

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy Family's Hard Times and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s by Maggie Smith-Bendell (Review)

(Originally published in England as Our Forgotten Years.)

After watching My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (reality TV show documenting the current descendents of gypsies and their culture), I really wanted to know about the original gypsy culture I had always heard about. I always loved the idea of living in a caravan in a nomadic life, around a fire at night. I yearned for this, especially I think growing up in the modern Canadian city of Calgary. Although I was lucky enough to go on camping trips, and even driving holidays with my family where we slept and drove in our large van - I know there was something in my blood that yearned for what was out there in the world beyond my own settlement.

This book is awesome. Maggie grew up living the old "gypsy" life (but they called themselves Travellers - only house dwellers called them Gypsies), travelling in a horse-drawn caravan with her family.

Note: There are 3 groups Maggie identifies - her own was the Travellers of Romanic origin, Irish Travellers, and New Age Travellers (people who no longer want to be house-bound). Her family picked hops and peas for farms with other Travellers during those seasons. It wasn't an idyllic life, it was a rough life with lots of hard work - but they got to live in nature, and although they were often given a hard time by the house dwellers and police they were free to roam as they wished. They had different ways of making a living depending on the season, others were making pegs or selling flowers. They carried their Romany culture with them. They were often unjustly discriminated against - although knowledgeable about many things, most could not read or write so their story has not been heard until now.

Here is the description from the back of Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two, and I really can't improve on it:

Born in a Somerset pea-field in 1941, the second of eight children in a Romani family, Maggie Smith-Bendell has lived through the years of greatest change in the travelling community's long history. As a child, Maggie road and slept in a horse-drawn wagon, picked hops and flowers, and sat beside her father's campfire on ancient verges, poor but free to roam. As the twentieth century progressed, common land was fenced off and the traditional Gypsy ways disappeared. Eventually Maggie married a house-dweller and tried to settle for bricks and mortar, but she never lost the restless spirit, the deep love of the land and the gift for storytelling that were her Romani inheritance.

Maggies story is one of hardship and prejudice, but also, unforgettably, it recalls the glories of the travelling life in the absolute safety of a loyal and loving family.

I like this photo of Maggie best for how it shows her character in her features. At married age - the two biggest boys are hers - sitting with her sister Holly and her two young children.Maggie is currently a tireless advocate for Romany Gypsy families, helping them get planning permission to live in their own way on private sites. Before this, they owned their own land but were unable to stay on it due to planning permission - or they lived on poor, unhealthy government sites built over landfills, or cemeteries (unthinkable to the deeply spiritually connected Travellers). There is now a network of people devoted to their cause, slowly improving slowly to reflect the needs of those who live in houses that move, as well as those that don't.

Maggie in one of the traditional caravans she keeps on her property in Somerset. Photo: David Mansell (http://www.guardian.co.uk/

I feel that Traveller people - similar the situation of native North American peoples - have something essential to pass on to us that we now desperately need; something they have retained that we have lost. Are our lives better now in a world where machines do the work of people? We - as in our parents, grandparents and great great grandparents - have exchanged our lives outside with the birds and animals and trees (and hedges and mist) in the natural world for a life of greater ease. We were fleeing the hardship and roughness of living on the land - a life I will never fully know the reality of, it's true. But at the same time, what have we lost? I can only imagine - but Maggie knows.

And why were gypsies socially stigmatized? Was it because they still wanted to live on the land, when the rest of society was leaving it?

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two is available as a paperback, but also an e-book (Kindle), and even as an audio book. It's published by Hachette Littlehampton (littlebrown.co.uk).

"Like the old song says: if I can help somebody with a word or a song, then my living will not be in vain." -Maggie Smith-Bendell

Gypsy Videos

Real footage of Travellers in the 1930s:

A kushti video made by some young Travellers(kushti means good):

An old Traveller song:

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