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Great Gypsies

Christmas Reading on Gypsies

Great GypsiesPosted by Chas Wiseman Wed, December 18, 2013 02:02:11


The work I describe below fails to mention the many poetic achievements in Mass Poetry, with Doug Holder as publisher,Ibbetson Street Press, as well as Mignon Ariel King, Dennis Daly,Timothy Gager and Irene Koronas all of whom overwhelm with subtleties that make prose seem a little limited. Here a sort of radical word puzzle is created, with some painting collages with words, as though thoughts might make us more profoundly moved if we are unable to understand juxtaposed sounds without work. I think what is humbling is how the verse seems to flow out of one into another. Chanting words, they are like spells. Hieroglyphs of empathy, battling through the small world into divine. Works and wonders 'of pen', as one describes, the computed word already becoming impersonal.

' As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,' Walt Whitman wrote, and I feel I am at a crossroads in my intellectual life. A theme has been a desire to travel into lives less known.

I have faith in everyone who questions what faith means, and recent books I am reading several times to do them justice, do just that. On the back cover of 'Dosha, Flight of The Russian Gypsies' I find that I am in awe as a read a review by none other than the exceptional, inspirational Sophy Burnham, author of 'A Book of Angels'; as well as other masterpieces, 'The Treasure of Montsegur', 'Revelations', and 'The Art of Intuition'. Here is what Sophy Burnham has to say:

'Sonia Meyer's no‐holds‐barred, sprawling, romantic first novel takes up the moving and horrifying history of Gypsies in Post War Russia. You won't forget the wild young girl, Dosha, and her beautiful white stallion in this compelling tale of intrigue and the fight for freedom by the Rom.'

I find myself reading over in detail to learn from these 'angel authors', including the most recent angels, Judy Goldberg and Chris Jones, of London Screenwriters Festival, who, however, make the biggest new festival inclusively available to anyone who likes reading or telling stories, actors, fans, not just film writers, which perhaps reveals a bit about Angels. As a theatre person, along with Laura Hymers, I find myself drawn again and again to that term, angels, borrowed often as a description of those producers of West End or Broadway, but meaning those who aid us and give meaning to our existence by taking interest in our individual goals and souls.
Back though to the earliest angels, though, many of whom were homeless and wandering Roma ( I suppose that is where the word 'Roaming' comes from?)

When I grew up I was a neighbour of the actor Ray Brooks, whose daughter Emma was my age. I knew little of his more serious drama, but it was not by chance that this profound man was very close to Jeremy Sandford, most celebrated of our gypsy rights' activists, who devoted most of his life to pursuing the cause of gypsies as he was also part‐gypsy. This man also wrote the much celebrated, ground-breaking 'Cathy Come Home' in 1966, which Ken Loach directed.

So when I found myself working with homeless, some of whom were gypsies, I sensed a theme recurring for me. Was it my desire to travel through different cultures, comprehending them, as our 'theatre circus' envisaged? We work with real people even if we do not belong to them. Then again, I wonder if it was a desire to travel in mind through them. We were invited to work with Aboriginies on Ayers Rock, then with Palestinians and Israelis, Catholic and Protestant Irish, and Brazilian street children. An open‐minded approach allowed us to examine the conflicts in people's lives and how these might prevent them from growing or finding happiness. This was the same conflict we found in Berlin when we produced a play employing gypsies from the East German State Circus, who had been performers, horse riders, sponsored by the State. With the Collapse of the Wall, when subsidies vanished, and they were completely alone, their skills were no longer valued.

With these people setting up their caravans in a bombed‐out courtyard next door to where I was living in Berlin, I found myself drawn immediately to them. Like the homeless we worked with, they were spontaneously able to sing and tell their stories.

Having a Master of Arts in Modern Languages, Russian and German, which included the study of literature, I have always been interested in Russian history and how it is portrayed, so it was enticing when I read the title of the book 'Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies', to encounter the varied and brilliant characters created. We learn how it was possible to survive in the woods with partisans and gypsies, under Nazi occupation and the significant contribution to resistance, that has never before been recorded by historians with such perspective and consistent detail. This book makes a great contribution to research and we also realise that the author, Sonia Meyer, has one foot in the book, writing from experience, as the sleeve tells us that from the age of two she was 'fleeing the Nazis in the woods with partisans' herself.

The book is published by 'Wilderness House', which is also known for 'the Bagel Bards' and an online community which after trailing through thousands of invitations to link with magazines, I found to be the first that seemed sincere and with integrity. The Editor‐at‐Large, John Hanson Mitchell, also runs an Environmentally‐concerned Sanctuary and has a website. You only have to look at his eponymous site to see the list of achievements as a guardian of nature and writer to see the reach of his influence. 'Gardening is meditation for me.' 'An Eden of Sorts: the Natural History of my Feral Garden' is the fifth in a series of 'a country within a country', referring to a square mile of land called 'Scratch Flat' in the Nineteenth Century that he has transformed in Eastern Massachusetts. He cites Henry Thoreau, the revolutionary philosopher, and Andrew Jackson Downing, the garden designer, as his mentors. I have been buying and receiving several of these Wilderness writers’ books as Laura Hymers and I find them inspiring in the same way perhaps as the 'Bagel Bards' benefit from congregating weekly with each other or as the Haitian patois puts it of a Ladou. With some communities of people living closely, John Mitchell reveals to us that research has divulged they are less likely to fight.

So the intellectual ladou is what draws us to take inspiration and heart from these wise old owls from the wildernesses of Massachusetts and beyond.

'Wilderness' has interesting connotations for me, as it is there we are told that people go to find themselves. I found when studying that the word is often a coded reference to spiritual leaders who have gone into forests or deserts and how the walking into one's own personal space is code for soul‐searching; so wilderness seems a place associated with meditative seeking of answers that can then be shared once solitude has purified us.

The array of activities at Wilderness House runs an amazing gamut: there is painter, poet, multimedia author of chapbooks and forward‐thinking Renaissance woman Irene Koronas who has recently reviewed artist Connie Agard in ‘Out of Favor’ in ‘South Carolina, Indian country’; there is ‘The Hungry Heart’ by Frances Metzman, we ordered as well; and then as said there is the theme of travellers, gypsies and various diaspora that is touched on by John Hanson Mitchell in his new book ‘Last of the Bird People’, exploring the disappearance of an anthropologist into a gypsy sort of life,as well as Sonia Meyer’s book and Steve Glines’, ‘Poplar Hill’, for which he has already been nominated for a Chaucer Historical Fiction Award. Steve has a passionate inquiring mind, whose focus appears is forever exploring his relationship with questions of spirituality and personal religion, as the best writers do, particularly coming to the fore in the third chapter on, of 'Poplar Hill' where Catherine survives a comic onslaught from various religious factions and fanatics as she is helped on her way to hospital in a whirling snowstorm.

I am a fan of all books that shed new light on the Second World War which I studied with deliberation at Edinburgh University, as building a unifying picture is a work of intense devoted scholarship.

As well as Sonia Meyer’s book spreading deeper understanding of the profound influence of gypsies involved in resistance as runners and spies and subverting German plans, by bombing bridges, there is the quieter, meditative exploration of a personal journey “Poplar Hill’ by Steve Glines, as the heroine Catherine Stevenson interprets, reflects on and transforms her own life. Included are accounts of her chance meeting with Hitler in a cafe and how as a child she held hands with Neville Chamberlain on his Munich peace mission. Her children are discovering hidden depths for the first time, besides the humor already experienced at her decision to hold a living wake many years before her demise, which made her a local celebrity. She has avoided until this point in her life revealing to them the painful memories of war and the close calls she had as a Jew, revisiting Europe after emigrating to America.

We also return to the painful task of putting memories to rest of war in 'Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies', another book that spans continents and timezones. There is a special relationship we learn between Russia and the gypsies as becomes clear early on in the text, when Dosha takes a lover Jano, who reads books, setting him apart from most gypsies and making him erudite and aware of what the new Red Russia is like. He has been an actor, he tells, in the Teatr Roman in Moscow. This is one of many references to the assimilation of gypsies that is common in Russia where the Romantic lives of travellers, who sing and dance is greatly admired.

Dosha is young and granddaughter of the King of the Lovara Gypsies, Khantchi. She has already excelled as a young girl, as the best runner under the partisans in Poland during the war. To protect her, Patrina, the sister of the King, tells her to call herself Ana, after the beautiful queen of the Good Fairies, ‘the Kelshalyi’, who live ‘in a secluded place high in the mountains where no one can reach them’. So when she and her prize horse are captured that is the name she adopts.

Osap, the Tartar, who abducts her is a lover of Bolshevik revolutionary, Galina Popova, a distant relative of the new Red Czar, Nikita Khrushchev. She is able to revive the Russian High School of Riding through her influence and so the search begins for quality horses and horsemanship, much of which has been lost during the slaughters of revolution and war.

The rich tapestry of Dosha’s family involvement in Russia is related in conversation by her aunt Djumila, also a daughter of Khantchi.

Historical documents and the Roma languages (numbers are the same in Hindi and ‘Raja’ means ‘King’ in Roma as well,) reveal that these people originate from the Indian subcontinent, a fact that Sonia Meyer is hinting at when she questions the term of ‘Roma’ as ‘gypsy’ in the sense of free, wild people of no known origin. Their free‐spiritedness reaches back presumably to the time of Alexander the Great, conquering India and consequentially moving people from East to West to cement relations and unify the Empire. Perhaps under Attila and Genghis Khan interracial developments were simply brought further. Attesting to the interracial marriage is a quote in the middle of the book ‘Scratch a Russian and you find a Tartar.’

‘Imagine us gypsies beloved by the highest in the land! It had never happened before, as long as memory recalls. Yet there they were, Russian counts marrying gypsy women. One count asked our tribal members whether he might adopt Khantchi as a son. It wasn’t that unusual: it happened quite a bit, especially if the youngsters had beauty of looks or of voice. It was heartbreaking for the romni, their mothers to leave their children as we moved on, and those children, adopted into a life of wealth.’

‘Khantchi happened to be camping with his kumpania on the land of the Count and Countess Perzoff ‐ who had loved him as their own ‐ when a messenger told him his adoptive parents were about to be slaughtered by the serfs. My father told me that he hesitated at first, weighing the responsibility to the people who had loved and protected him against the need to lead his own people to safety. In the end he ordered his people to disperse, to break up into smaller groups, but never to leave his very pregnant wife, my mother Sanija, alone until they reached the encampment of his sister Patrina. ’ So they disperse..

Khantchi’s bride is Sanija whom their parents have promised at birth to join two tribes.

‘You have to understand that in her youth Sanija, your grandmother, had been famous at the court of the last Czar, first as a singer and later on as a fortune teller. The courtiers felt that her deep throaty voice reached into the deepest, darkest corners of the Russian soul. Poets at the last czar’s court celebrated her beauty. ’ As Roma found success in cities they called those travellers in the woods ‘wild gypsies’.

It is rare to read a book that only increases in interest the further we read.

A very happy coincidence to have found the ladou of intellectuals at Wilderness and their explorations of dark avenues. I have a special interest in the meaning of Gypsies for personal reasons, having become involved in a travelling theatre company that started in Edinburgh but mingled with many gypsies worldwide.

Like Jeremy Sandford Meyer is an activist for Gypsy rights. My personal journey has brought me very closely in contact with a half‐gypsy that I helped off the streets of London, Alan Roy Davies, who Ray Brooks also knew as we passed him everyday to travel on trains and buy his copy of the homeless 'Big Issue'. I involved him in theatre and film, with the result that we were both able to learn enormously about our different cultures.

‘Kingship may well have come from the East as notions of Kingship are unknown in the West before Arthur and Merlin.’ Raja as said is the word for Kingship in the East, which reminds me of a conversation with friend Rupert Ferguson, a man who has written the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’, with such deep knowledge of Walter Scott and Arthurian legend that I might conclude he was Walter and Arthur. Is it possible that Arthur and Merlin were gypsies, travelling on the trade routes from the East, looking for a peaceful island setting to start their own tribe of romance and Kings?

I find a growing sense of kinship with free spirits, as though as a sort of literary Merlin, reflecting on my continuing desire to understand where ideals have come from and where they lead.


PS find it truly moving, admirable and humbling that these writers John Hanson Mitchell, Sonia, Steve, above are sharing my words on facebook. I didn't check until now, three weeks on! Never mind!

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