Saturday, February 13, 2010
Maggie Smith-Bendell was born on the edge of a pea field, the second of eight children in a family of old-fashioned Romany Gypsies. It was a harsh but magical childhood
By Veronique Mistiaen
Saturday 13 February 2010
Depending on whom you ask, Maggie Smith-Bendell is either a grandmother from hell or a heroic and tireless campaigner for Gypsy rights. For the last decade, this feisty 68-year-old Romany Gypsy, has been helping Gypsy families to secure private land to live on and advising legislators on planning issues.
Now, "the grandmother of the land grab", as she has been described, has written a beautiful memoir to "try to explain to house-dwellers who we are and how we live", and record a way of life that has more or less vanished. "I feel privileged to be born in the era of the wagon and horse to good, old-fashioned Romany Gypsy parents," she says, sitting in her trailer office on a plot of land she inherited from her father, near Bridgwater in Somerset. "I worked with my dad for the last 18 years of his life, even when I was married. I drove his scrap lorry. He was my best friend. I understood his ways," she says, pouring tea and cutting slices of cake. "After he died, I never collected any scrap iron again or made the Christmas holly wreaths. With his death, the old way of life was gone. I wrote my book because I didn't want his memory and our ancient ways to die out."
Years before she wrote Our Forgotten Years, Maggie had created it all in her head – in Romany, her first language, which she spoke almost exclusively as a child. "In my head, I went back, reliving it all. When I was picking snowdrops in my head and the phone rang, I got very angry because I was there. I hankered for my past, for my childhood."
Maggie was born on the edge of a pea field near Bridgwater in 1941 to Lenard Smith and Defiance (Vie) Small – the second of eight children (quite a small family by Gypsy standards), each born at a different stopping place. Like most Gypsies at the time, her family travelled across the countryside, eking out a living from the woods and hedgerows, picking daffodils and snowdrops, catching rabbits, pheasants and wild duck, and collecting scrap metal and rags. They made wooden clothes pegs and flowers, which the women and children would sell door to door. They also worked for farmers, picking peas, beans and hops – and as soon as Maggie was old enough she contributed to the family's labour. "We started working at the age of three. My dad called us 'his little army of workers'."
It was a harsh life dominated by work, but also a life of freedom, driven by the seasons (they had no clocks, but knew when The Archers was on) and with an extraordinary closeness to nature. "We had the whole world as our school and playground. I'd go back on the road this minute," she says.
In her book, illustrated with family photos, Maggie conjures up the call of the road, the beauty of a crisp winter morning, the nights when all the children fell asleep safe and snug in the wagon, the days working in the fields with other families and meeting up with them in the evening around a roaring open fire with a stew cooking in the pot. A few of her favourite family dishes are included in her book as a postscript, along with some wagon songs, traditional Romany crafts and a small dictionary of Romany words. There is, for example, a recipe for rabbit stew and one for jog-jog, the hedgehogs, which, she says, "are eaten in the wintertime as they are considered unclean in the breeding season, like most animals. These meals were nearly always made over an open fire, using a kettle iron to balance the big black pot we had."
"The yog [outside fire] was the centre of our life, of our family," she says. "Everything got discussed and pulled apart and put back together in front of the yog. It was everybody's job to keep it going. I still have fires outside," she says, pointing to the adjacent field where her father's mare is buried and where, until recently, she and her husband, Terry, kept their horses. On their land, there is also a larger, comfortable mobile home, a caravan where her two sons and grandchildren stay when they visit, a yard with two Alsatians and an open barn sheltering three beautiful antique Gypsy wagons as well as a miniature one she takes to schools so children can learn about traditional Romany culture.
But her memoir also describes darker memories: the bullying at school, the death of her little brother Jess after he fell from a cart, her parents' ignorance of the law and the constant suspicion and harassment from the police and villagers. One of her most vivid memories is of how terrified her family felt when a farmer and his wife offered to take her brother Alfie from them and look after him. Her parents grabbed their children and fled in a panic, leaving most of their precious possessions behind. They believed any gorgie (non-Romany) could take away any Gypsy child if they wanted to. "It must have been hell for my people back in them years," she writes. "How they must have lived in fear! ... We knew only that laws counted against us, that we were always in the wrong." These early experiences made her what she is today, "an activist for my race of Gypsy people," says Maggie, who runs an advisory service for Gypsies and Travellers based in the south-west of England, and campaigns for their right to live peacefully in accordance with their culture.
In spite of her heritage, Maggie decided she wouldn't marry a Gypsy. "They seemed far too controlling for my way of thinking; too quick with their fists," she says. "In fact, I thought I would never get married until I met Terry. He was born a gorgie, but he is my Gypsy man.
"Terry was a gorgie mush [man] just out of the army, and he had never met a Gypsy woman before. It took us several years to settle down to each other. And how I tormented him," she adds with a mischievous smile. "We never argued. I was not used to that, so I thought he was too pliable, but he was just not controlling. But I brought up my two boys in a Gypsy way: with strict discipline. Right from the beginning they were told right from wrong." Their son Michael, 46, is a landscape gardener, and Jason, 44, works for a baker. They have five grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
We go into the larger mobile home to visit Terry, who is sitting in the living room with a friend. He has cancer. "Back then, it was custom for us when someone was ill and dying, to return to all the old stopping places that had meant something to that person. Even though Terry is not a Gypsy, I took him to all the places that were special for us," says Maggie softly. She had taken her father on a similar journey years before. "Near the end we packed up and took him to all the well-known stopping places from my youth, everywhere his heart desired," she writes. "Every day I would fill the tank with fuel and ask him, 'Where to today, then, Dad?' We covered many miles only to find that most of our beloved stopping places were fenced off or blocked with stones and fences. This upset him badly. "So much of our way of life is over. Hops are now gathered by machine and peas picked by foreign workers who will work for less. Most of all, the common land has been fenced off or blocked. So many of our historical stopping places have been taken away from us."
To replace the traditional stopping places, the 1968 Caravan Sites Act stipulated that local authorities had to provide dedicated sites for Gypsies and Travellers. But there is a desperate shortage of legal pitches, and they are often built on "awkward and unhygienic places" such as over old rubbish tips and cemeteries, and come with many restrictions, says Maggie. As a result, "So many of our people are forced to live in bricks and mortar, like my grandchildren. Often they have to hide that they are Gypsies from their neighbours and even friends. They dread visits from their own family just in case the neighbours figure it out. We are now all split up. With each generation, our culture is getting weaker. For our people who dwell in houses, our Romany ways will soon be a memory. The only Gypsy culture left to them will be funerals and horse fairs."
After the Tories repealed the act in 1994, Travellers and Gypsies were told to look for their own land, but each time Maggie and Terry found a piece of land, they were refused planning permission because they were Gypsies. Gypsies all over the country face similar rejections, she says. Eventually, Maggie and Terry were granted planning permission on her father's old paddock, but only after "I had been degraded in public, in the press and in my local area, just for being a Romany." That's how Maggie became involved in helping her people to acquire land, often advising them to move on to the land first, start building, then lodge a retrospective application, which was more likely to be successful.
"On a private site, we can return to our traditions, for to have an outside fire to cook upon and sit around is forbidden on authorised council sites as a hazard. If you sing and dance on a council site, you're likely to get your marching orders for making noise; if you bring a horse back to the site you're causing a nuisance to others.
"I feel that every family I put on a little piece of land of their own, their culture will be preserved. They can send their children to be educated, have access to healthcare and have some security and dignity. In a small way, I am helping my people to keep our culture alive."
Our Forgotten Years: A Gypsy Woman's Life on the Road by Maggie Smith-Bendell is published by University of Hertfordshire Press, £8.99. To order a copy for £8.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
Posted by Morgan at 2:02 PM