I’ve tried Googling these places, but it’s usually pointless. Each one is a ‘stopping place’: ‘atchin tan’ in modern Romany; ‘achimasko tan’ in the florid, inflected and nearly lost speech of the past. The geography of Britain’s Gypsies resists documentation by outsiders, always has done. It’s not deliberate, it just happens. Lives flow differently, intersect rarely, with the seasons; occasionally, hardly at all.
Messenger’s Meadow always caught my attention the best. Such an English name, so familiar: the unhurried, light-heeled sprung rhythm. It exists on no map, is listed in no feudal ledgers. Yet this was, I felt, the most mentioned place name of my childhood. My mother’s family used to ‘stop’ there – camp with wagons and tents – for decades. Possibly, for generations.
I never had a clue where it was. I could picture it, though, gently sloping and yellow with buttercups. My Nan told me how they were stopping there when war was declared; how a girl in long petticoats came running over the field to say England was fighting the Germans. Even these days, when anyone mentions the war, it’s the first thing I see, this place that’s as far from a war as it was from the city.
Messenger’s Meadow was named for its owner. Mr Messenger was a farmer, well trusted by Gypsies because he employed them, seasonal camping as part of the deal. In lots of places these relationships went back generations, families of farmers and Gypsies who knew each others’ names, the faces of each others’ children. They mucked in to the same rural economy. They depended on each other. It’s possible that whole dynasties of Gypsies got their English Yeoman surnames in this way. What their names were when they set out on rough barques from Norway, the German coast, Holland, who knows? But soon ‘Mr Boswell’s Egyptians’ were just called the Boswells, the Lockes, and so on. Their language still carried the scuffs of their journey, though. Odd bits of Persian and Byzantine Greek, later one or two German words, pock-marked an Indian speech.
Since the late 18th century, linguists have agreed that the Gypsies’ roots lie in south Asia. The Romani language, a close relative of Sanskrit, is the only Indian tongue that is spoken exclusively outside of India. This is history, straight and prosaic. Many Gypsies dislike it. They are at home with the mistiness cliché has given their origins. The wider public’s ignorance of Romany and Traveller culture has long been a gift to the weaver of stories, and romance and folk etymology flourish in Gypsydom. Declaring that ‘Romany’ is an anglicised form of an old Indic adjective that might mean ‘human’, ‘pertaining to man’ or ‘of one of us’ has very limited traction in Traveller circles. I’ve met English Gypsies who believe, instead, that it simply comes from them ‘roaming’ around; or that the Rom are a lost tribe of Israel. Some think we descend from the Rechabites, the nomadic Kenites mentioned in the book of Jeremiah. For centuries, scholars have agreed that ‘Gypsy’ is a misnomer, as Romanies neither came from nor probably ever went into Egypt. Yet many Gypsies refuse to release this connection. Some visit the pyramids, part-British tourist, part-scion of mythic diasporas. I don’t know what they hope to find there – some ennoblement, maybe, with solider roots; a journey more real than a narrative spawned by linguistics.
I, perhaps lamely, felt utterly rooted in England. It could be my fair hair and blue eyes, I’ve sometimes thought. But there’s the history, too. Four generations of my family lie buried in a single churchyard in remote Binsted, the ‘Hampshire hop country’ they’d pass through each year on a well-worn circuit of hop-picking, hedge-laying, ditch-clearing, and ‘stone-picking-up’. As a little boy, up there for funerals, I could see we weren’t drifters or wanderers who belonged nowhere. We were tightly attached to these places, like everyone else.
But we weren’t just like everyone else. Our old men with straw trilby hats, massive hands and dark faces; our women with fur coats and gold sovereigns, standing by flint walls and talking in Romany. A bit Goodfellas, part Darling Buds of May, neither of these. Like the Jews, we’re from here and we’re not from here. Everyone knows when we walk into the pub: the brash gold jewellery, the slicked hair, dealer boots and weird, rural twang in the voice, unmannered and loud. Everyone goes quiet and hopes we won’t be stopping too long.
I’ve tried not to forget the old places. I go to the graves now and then, oftener as I age. I stand there surrounded by birdsong and picturing faces I never knew, or knew only from black and white photographs, seeing them laughing and knocking back pints of bitter. As the old ones I did know have joined them, I’ve become more obsessed with the place, can’t pass it without stopping by. Many Travellers won’t drive past someone they know without calling in briefly for tea: it feels like a snub, like bad luck. And so we repeat the old custom, sans tea, with the dead. We are morbid, and proud of it.
When I finally got there, Messenger’s Meadow was not as I’d dreamt it. Flatter and flowerless, just by the road, green, and empty, it filled me with nothing. A sign nearby warned people not to tamper with the earth: there were Roman remains in the soil, important ones. I looked for the stream where the Travellers used to draw water, cool in every season, so my Nan said. Couldn’t find it. A field next door looked more like it could have been a real stopping place: high hedgerows, hollowed and sheltering; looked like a place where tents could hunch, waiting out storms. But I was looking with modern eyes, trailer- and house-bred, pampered. I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell.