Race Matters

After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues (Review)

Reading After All These Years is like sitting around a fire with Maggie Smith-Bendall, listening to her tell you stories, which is probably exactly how the veteran Romani rights activist would want you to feel. When she was young, Smith-Bendall herself sat around the roaring ‘yog’ listening to her Grandad’s tales. Today, she worries that as the wood fires and wagons are replaced with mobile homes and flat screen TVs, the stories will be lost too. With this autobiographical book, she aims not only to help non-Romani society better understand her race, but also to tell the stories of a disappearing world to younger generations of Romanis who will never experience it first-hand.

Smith-Bendall was born in a pea-field in Somerset in 1941. She spent her childhood travelling around South-West England in a horse-drawn wagon, her family’s cyclical journey strung around regular stopping places where they would harvest peas, gather hops or ‘hawk’ handmade wooden flowers and wild fruit to the house-dwelling population. She speaks of her childhood as a sweet-smelling, blissful time, where “happiness was sitting on the foreboard of my Dad’s wagon… singing a little song in harmony with him as we slowly travelled along the lanes”. Family was at the heart of everything, and although the ‘chavvies’ were expected to go hawking and freeze their hands in hop fields along with the adults, it was the house-dwellers she felt sorry for. Brought from sleep to the smell of “thick home-cured bacon” one winter, she laments “all the poor people in the big towns” who don’t have the chance to eat breakfast sitting on an apple box in the snow.

[caption id="attachment_304" align="aligncenter" width="217"]After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues  Maggie Smith-Bendall After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues
Maggie Smith-Bendall
University of Hertfordshire Press, 2013[/caption]

But Smith-Bendall doesn’t allow nostalgia to preclude honesty about the Roma community, one of the book’s successes. She is frank about the controlling behaviour of many Romani men; her heartbreak at seeing her father give her mother black ‘yocks’ (eyes). In fact, this is why she decides not to settle down with a Romani – instead, she is temporarily disowned by her family for marrying a ‘gorgie mush’ (non-Romani man). Her husband Terry, to whom After All These Years is dedicated, died from cancer not long before she wrote the book, and her love for him permeates its pages. Over the years, Terry learns Roma and wins a slow acceptance from her father, with whom he bonds over dealing ‘grys’ (horses). Interestingly, his integration into Romani culture is a source of consternation rather than praise from the community, which after centuries of persecution is fiercely resistant to sharing its secrets with outsiders. Smith-Bendall’s mother never quite forgives her daughter’s betrayal, but when her father describes Terry as a 'hard mush' to deal a 'gry' with, it is an incomparable acknowledgement of respect.

Within these tales of magical Christmases and tipsy horse fairs are hints of something darker –the ‘gavvers’ constantly moving them on, the children’s fear at being taken away by the authorities, the horse fair becoming out of bounds because of ‘health and safety’. Smith-Bendall takes us back to the 16th century, when Henry VIII passed a law ordering all Gypsies to leave the country.  But we only have to consider the subtext of current fears about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to be reminded that this is not history. Studies suggest that the UK’s traveller population suffers more racism than any other group, and it is a prejudice that has a veneer of respectability – only in 2002, an MP called travellers ‘scum’ in parliament, and didn’t lose his job.

In a recent Radio 4 documentary about Roma children being taken into care, a social worker expressed concern about Roma parents ‘letting their children roam the streets’. Had she read Smith-Bendall’s memoir, she might have considered whether this had to do with a historically travelling community finding itself in an urban environment. By helping us to understand Romani culture, After All These Years offers us a key to tackling our prejudices. It is an important book.

Buy After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues here.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Much Ramblings
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