We Still Breathe their Air


There have been Roma in Europe since the Middle Ages and today they make up one of the continent's largest minorities, in countries as far apart as Ireland and Russia. Roma have a rich and ancient oral culture, that has survived in many forms, despite centuries of discrimination and attempts at forced assimilation. Today, across Europe, traditional Romany ways of life are disappearing fast under the pressures of modern life. But in this programme we look at the example of Roma in the Czech Republic and Romany Gypsies in Britain, and find out that many are turning to writing as a way of preserving and asserting their culture.

"My music is about the experience of the problems of my race, because I'm a Gypsy, and I can say - yes, I'm angry, but it's also funny. I want to provoke on both sides, not only the white side but also I want to provoke Gypsies and everyone who's listening."

"The Roma culture is dying, it's true, but on the other side, I don't think all elements of Roma culture are dying."

(Czech Romany Rapper "Gipsy")

"I think it's time for the Travellers to realize that they don't just have to be one thing. Just as long as you are what you are in your heart, it doesn't matter which language you're using or how it's coming out."

(English Romany Gypsy poet Hester Hedges)


by Hester Hedges

Square pegs in round holes

yet ready for what life unfolds

we know what the future holds

for the Gypsies

it is the gift for the precious few

but the Gypsies know

Move on, that's what the Gypsies will do.

Laughter will shatter the ruins of the world

you'll hear it from the Gypsies

and music will prevail,

when the caged birds are silenced

music from the Gypsies

Mothers singing beyond walls and over waters

the voice of the Gypsies

And the young will renew the old

as memories are retold, retold

for what is time to all of we

for we are every Romany

Move on again, Yes that's what we do

and we will find a tale or two

The old world is our breath, our heart

and our start, is where we finish

forever, moving on.

Two young people from very different parts of Europe expressing themselves in very different ways and yet they share the desire to deliver a common message. Romany rapper "Gipsy", from Prague talks about the difficulties faced by his people, the Roma in the Czech Republic. Hester Hedges from an English Romany Gypsy family uses poetry to express her desire not to be seen as a square peg to be driven into a round hole. For centuries across Europe, the Gypsies have been cast in the role of outsiders, a race of people who need to be controlled and eventually assimilated into the dominant culture of the Gadjee or Gorjer, the non Gypsy.

Historically Gypsy culture has not made much use of literacy, its strength has rested within the strong bonds and relationships of oral interchange. But these two young people are part of a growing movement of Roma who are now using the power of the written word to make their voices heard outside their own communities.

But in so doing they are not simply casting off or disregarding their own history and culture, they are drawing upon the older oral traditions embedded within the arts of song, music and storytelling.

The old world

Ilona Ferkova is a Roma poet and author who lives in the West Bohemian town of Rocycany and Bill Lee a novelist, currently living on a council-run Gypsy site in Kent in South-East England. They both grew up having very little contact with non Gypsies. The stories and songs carried by the older generation formed an essential part of their education.

Ilona Ferkova: "There was a "wagon colony" - made of old railway wagons - here. All the Slovak Roma lived there. Dad was clever and made two rooms from the wagon. He wanted lots of children and I was one of 7. He fell ill and mother had to work. The wagon colony was demolished. My parents were given a flat and that's where I grew up.

"We lived our own lives. We weren't like Czech children - we didn't have after-school activities and things like that. All the Roma children all played together in one street. We would go and play there with the ghetto kids. People would talk a lot there. When the old people got together in the courtyard, drank beer and played music, they started telling stories. I loved listening to their stories. They were amazing. I loved going to the ghetto to hear what the old Roma said."

Bill Lee,  photo: Simon Evans
Bill Lee: "We would pull into a farmer's field of about twenty or thirty acres. They would always pull up around the edge. You could look out and you would see the fires starting to glow up. I'll always remember seeing the black shadows that moved as the night drew in around the fires. But you could go to that fire. Even people you didn't know, and they were older people than yourself - straight away you'd adopt those people. You'd call them 'aunt' and 'uncle' and in that way you showed them respect, and they would treat you with respect as well. They'd ask you who you were and you'd tell them your name. And then they'd start telling you stories about your people.

"There were songs that they'd make up and sing. They'd be standing in a group and they'd say, 'to you, bruv,' or 'to you sister', and they'd 'chuck' the song. They'd sing it so far and then you had to pick it up and take it over. It would be a little bit different every time you heard it, because someone had a new verse. They just made it up.

"My father always said - they say 'the good old days', but it was the bad old days. In 1947, they were staying in these woods. It was the only place that wasn't frozen up. Everywhere there was ice and snow. The birds, you could pick them out of the bushes, they were frozen to the branches. The life was so hard for them.

"It was a two-mile walk with a two-gallon churn, and by the time they got the water back it was frozen solid in the churn. All they used to do, my father and Alfie, was to carry water and get firewood to keep the fires burning and keep my granny and grandfather alive and Alfie's mum and dad, because otherwise they wouldn't have made the winter. And he said the following winter was just as bad.

"And then, come the summer, if you were on the side of the roads, you had the police on you all the time. It was just a vicious circle that went on and on."

Andrej Gina: "I grew up in Eastern Slovakia. There were 7 families in our settlement. In 1942 the Slovak fascists came and made us move. They demolished our cottages and we had to move 2km out of the village. I was 6. We were very poor. That year it was very dry. My parents begged and went to collect rotten potatoes left on the fields. It was dreadful. Hunger. Our mothers carried us from house to house, begging the peasants for food. At the harvest time our people worked for the peasants. They paid us in food. Life was very tough."

Bill Lee: "No sooner had you finished work - whatever farm you were on - than the council would get onto the farmer and make you move. You had to go. That's why I didn't go to school. Well, I didn't know anybody who went to school, when we were on the farms because we were all working. We'd all be going down the roads to work before the birds were awake and we'd be coming home when the birds had gone back to roost. So we spent all our time in the fields to work - Saturdays and Sundays and all."

The beginnings of a Roma literary movement

Andrej Gina, in common with many Roma now living in the Czech Republic, moved there after the war from Slovakia. Although persecuted and forced from their homes by the fascists, the Slovak Roma generally escaped the Holocaust during which almost the entire population of Roma in the Czech Republic were murdered. Andrej comes from a family of metal smiths and musicians and has written atmospheric short stories about life in the old Romany villages of Slovakia. Together with Tera Fabianova he was part of the first Roma literary movement in Prague during the late 1960's. Tera writes poetry and short stories which are also rooted in her own experiences and those of her people.

From the story: "HOW I WENT TO SCHOOL"

by Tera Fabianova

Once I was very hungry. It was at carnival time. The peasant women were baking and cooking, but in our "gypsy" settlement we were as hungry as ever. The teacher asked the children what they'd eaten.

"We've got nothing at home. We never eat till Mama gets back from the village, Bango says. "So we don't eat in the morning."

It was true. Our first meal was in the afternoon, when the mothers returned from the village and brought potatoes, curd cheese, milk, or whatever the peasant women gave them for cutting their wood, cleaning out the pigsty and scrubbing the oven clean.

"And what did you eat?" the teacher asked me.

"Wow." My eyes lit up like stars. "If only you knew everything I'd eaten. A biscuit with curd cheese and butter, soup, buns, cake...!"

"How come you ate, when your sister hasn't eaten anything since yesterday?" the teacher interrupted.

"Why are you lying? Stick out that lying tongue of yours, and see how it feels to have my ruler across it!"

I had to stick out my tongue, and the teacher slashed down on it with her ruler. It hurt dreadfully. I couldn't even talk. When I'd recovered a bit, I said, "I wasn't lying! I did eat it all. In my dreams. Last night I dreamed that I was eating.

The teacher went red, said nothing and turned her back to me.

Tera Fabianova: "No-one in my family could read and write. I would go and work as a little girl for the Gadjo for a piece of bread and lard. One day they came to tell us to go to school. 'One from each family must go to school or you'll be locked up.' My mother said, 'You'll go 'cos you're naughty.' I climbed trees and was a real tomboy. My mum washed my head and feet and I went off to school.

"I sat in the first row, because I wanted to be clever, and near the teacher. I didn't have a pencil or paper or anything. I sat and waited for the teacher. She came and said, 'Hey, you, Gypsy kid. Your place is at the back.' There were three benches where the Romany and poorest children sat. I wasn't allowed to sit at the front. But I wanted to be clever, wanted to learn."

Hester Hedges: "The teacher, a lot of the time, doesn't even understand you. I've seen teachers do horrendous things to Traveller children, not realising that actually what they're doing is infringing on their cultural values and what they're comfortable with. I worked as a support assistant for a time as well for the Traveller education team in Cambridgeshire, and some of the things the teachers do....

"Sometimes they'd shout at the children and say - 'If you turned up more often, this would happen and that would happen. The reason why you're stupid is because you're never here. You're too stupid to know that it's good for you to turn up. But the thing is that they couldn't possibly turn up any more than they were anyway, because with their family was moving around they were in school as much as they could be."

Tera Fabianova: "The teacher made me suffer. When my little sister Helena was born I was at the birth. I saw the miracle of someone being brought into the world. The midwife told me to bring water and cloths. It was cold and I helped to bring Helena into the world. We didn't have running water, I had to go to the well, I had to cut wood for the midwife. The next day I went to school. We had Catechism - I sat down. Because I hadn't slept all night, I fell asleep. The priest said, '"Hey, you bighead"' - because I had lots of hair - '"tell me how Jesus was born."' And I said - "'Father, you've never seen it, but I was there when our Helena was born.'" He gave me ten slaps with the cane on my bottom and on my hand. And he sent me off to the church to pray."

Bill Lee: "When the boys were born education was going to be the way forward. They had to have education. So no sooner did they become old enough to go to school, we came onto the site and only travelled when they had the school holidays. They didn't have a very easy time at school. It was very hard for them. The first thing we had was the headmaster. He said they had a speech impediment. He wanted us to take us to this place to assess them and all that. So we took them, and the lady said, 'There's nothing wrong with them', and she said, 'How old are they?' and I said, 'They're six now.' She said, 'I would have thought listening to them that they were somewhere about eight or nine from the way they're talking.' And what it was, they were talking Romany. And the other children in school wanted to know, so they were teaching them as well. Because he couldn't understand it, they said they had a speech impediment!"

A question of language

Ilona Ferkova jr.: "I wrote a poem about how I didn't want a son, but a daughter, but when my son was born, I thought that he looked exactly like me. I liked having a son. I was happy to have a child. It doesn't matter if it's a boy or a girl."

Ilona Ferkova's daughter, also Ilona, writes as well. Her poetry is in Romany which, for her, remains an important cultural touchstone although she didn't grow up to speak it as a child. In the Czech Republic during the communist era speaking the Romany language was actively discouraged as part of the government's policy to assimilate the Roma. Many parents also felt that by denying their culture and becoming Czech speakers their children might not suffer the same racism and exclusion that they had.

Ilona Ferkova jr.: "When I was growing up I heard the Romany language but I didn't understand. When my parents spoke the Romany language I asked every time, 'What did you say? Tell me. I want to know. What is it, this word?' We grew up in the Romany language, but we didn't understand."

Andrej Gina: "It upsets me how people speak Czech with their children, even though they know how to speak Romany. They say it would be a problem at school. I think that's nonsense. A little child who speaks Romany at home very quickly comes to understand Romany - and then quickly learns Czech too. We have this experience in my own family. We never taught them Czech. We only spoke Romany with them, and I do to this day. It was never a problem at school. My son went on to technical college. He speaks good Romany and Czech. The girls too. They all speak both. There's no sign that they've lagged behind because of it.

"People were encouraged to speak Czech, but a child can easily learn - more easily than a grown-up. If he doesn't speak Romany at home it will be lost, but Czech will always remain around him. Czech's everywhere, but if you don't hear Romany at home, you won't hear it anywhere."

Bill Lee: "You'd pick it up. You would go out to the 'chover' - that's the shop. You'd go to the 'kitchema' - that's the pub. The word 'garafer' is beer. And another word for a butcher's shop was a 'masangers'. There's no end to it. 'Tood' was milk, 'goodli' was sugar 'pan' was bread. The list goes on and on and on. There are things that are just popping in my head now. I can always remember my grandfather saying about his mother, my great gran - her hair was red and he used to call her a 'wafeti bal juvel' - which means she's a bad-tempered woman. They always say that people with red hair are bad-tempered."

Hester Hedges: "Because the younger generation has settled down, a lot of Gypsy parents are saying now, 'Well, they're not Gypsies like we were Gypsies,' and things like that. But are they actually speaking to us like their parents spoke to them as well? Are they actually passing on all these words? I'm not so sure that's actually happening. But the words that they have taught me and the words that you get, you do actually use. And it sounds very strange next to the English language, as well. It's like bringing in Indian words. But sometimes I've written stories and I'm telling it, as if I'm telling it to a Gorjer, but when I have conversations between Romany people in the stories, then they will speak Romany."

In the eighteenth century linguists had identified Romany as a largely Sanskrit language and evolved theories that it originated in northern India and had travelled across Europe with groups of people who left the Indus valley in the tenth century.

Although it has been written down by academics its use by Romany Gypsies had always been as part of an oral tradition, the written word has historically played no part in Gypsy culture. However as Hester has just suggested the Romany language in the UK is becoming ever more Anglicised as with every passing generation more words are lost.

Due in part to government policy the same happened in Czechoslovakia, but in the 1960's a student of Hindology had taken an interest in the language that was being spoken by the Roma. She recognised words that she already knew from her work in Hindi and from then on deflected her studies towards the language that the Gypsies spoke.

Milena Hubschmanova
Dr Milena Hubschmanova is now professor of Romany Studies at the Charles University in Prague and has been instrumental in supporting the Romany language and assisting it to make the transition into a written form. She knew that unless this happened it would inevitably continue to decline but to undertake this work which was contrary to the communist government's policy of assimilation was to take an enormous risk. However she was quick to grasp the opportunity presented by the fleeting window of liberalisation in the late 1960's

Milena Hubschmannova: "In 1968, the so-called Prague Spring, there was an attempt to make society more democratic. That was suppressed very soon. The Soviet troops came here. But in that time, Roma were permitted to form their own organisation. It was called the Union of Gypsy-Roma. And also they started to publish a bulletin. For the first time in the history of Roma, I would say, it was the Roma themselves who started to write, who wanted to write, who wanted to express their ideas in the Romany language."

Ilona Ferkova: "I saw the first thing that Andrej Gina had written. It was the first time I'd seen written Romany. The book was there in the shop and the title was in Romany. It really puzzled me. I couldn't believe it.

"But I didn't really start thinking about it until I founded a music group with some other women. There was one song in Romany we sang. Milena Hubschmannova really liked it. It was real. She asked me who had written it, and I said - me. Milena encouraged me to write. But I'd never written. It was strange, very strange, to write in Romany. It was strange to be putting down what I said. It was even a slightly unpleasant feeling. When I read it back I said, 'It sounds odd.' We weren't used to the written word. But I read it again and again - and thought - 'this is really nice.'"

Since those days Ilona has continued to write in Romany, The Rolling Pin is a short story based on the real experience of Roma in the 60s, when in a clumsy and cruel attempt at social engineering the government attempted to separate Roma children from their parents.

We pick up the story as the mother Julka opens the door to find herself confronted by a delegation from the authorities:


by Ilona Ferkova

"Now listen," said the second woman in a sweet voice, "you know the child would be better off in a children's home. Don't be afraid, they'll look after him properly there, better than you can."

That was the last straw for Julka. "So you've come to steal my Julecek? Get out of my flat!" She marched over and opened the door. She was still holding the rolling pin that she'd been using to roll out the pastry when the Gadjo had come in. Pointing with the rolling pin she showed them where to go. The Gadjo ran out at full speed, without even stopping to shut the door, and Julka slammed it behind them.

She picked up her little boy from the floor. "Don't cry, sweetheart, I won't let anyone take you!" And she kissed his tiny eyes, hands and feet.

When Feri came home she told him what had happened.

"You should have hit them with the rolling pin!" Feri said angrily. "Just as well you didn't. They'd have had you locked up..."

A week later they got an official letter, summoning Julka to the police station. The world went dark and her head began to swim.

Feri sighed. "You'll see, they'll make us move on again!"

When the police started at her, Julka's eyes flashed with fury. They say I wanted to hit the Gadjo with a rolling pin: Assault on a public officer.

Creating a written version of a language that has hitherto only existed on the tongue is a complex exercise. We have become accustomed to the notion that a written language needs rules, we accept a consensus of grammar, punctuation and spelling, so what happens when this framework is absent?

Milena Hubschmannova: "They simply wrote as they felt. Everybody has his own spelling. Everybody has his own punctuation. It was, for instance, beautiful using capital letters. I got a story, it was called 'Daniel', and he wrote about his family. He wrote, 'My dear brother.' He wrote 'my' with a little 'm', 'dear' with a capital letter, and 'brother' with an even more capital letter!"

This is a very fluid form of language. Did things start to formalise over a period of time?

MH: "Romani is still not standardised and everybody speaks a little different, not much, but a little."

Do we not start to enter into some slightly difficult areas here? Is there not a danger that all these different dialects and regional and national dialects of Romany somehow become standardised?

MH: "This is very, very difficult and there are a lot of fights, but there are examples in the world, for instance in Hindi. Hindi, which is spoken by half a billion people, has 48 dialects, and in one text you can see even four dialectic forms. So I got inspired by this and I think we can use it in Romany too."

Through her work Milena Hubschmanova has been responsible for introducing many Roma storytellers and poets to the written word thus to a much wider public than the close circle of family and friends that usually make up the audience in an oral culture. One such has been the Roma writer Tera Fabianova whose work she helped to publish 35 years ago, it was during a car journey with Tera that Milena first became aware of her friends talents.

Milena Hubschmannova: "We were going somewhere by car and all of a sudden she started to shout something. It was so beautiful that I immediately stopped and took a paper and pencil or something, and I asked her to repeat it. So she repeated it and I put it down. She was composing poetry before but never in Romany, only in Hungarian, because Hungarian is her second mother-tongue. It was her first poem in the Romany language."

Come with me, my sweet, to my mother's village

Where after dark the Roma spin their tales

Come with me, I'll never leave your side

Nor bring you pain or shame.

When the Roma see me bring you

The fiddler will strike up a tune.

We are not poor, though we have nowhere to lay our heads.

An old walnut tree stands in the yard - leaves green,

There I shall lay you down, when the silver night falls.

I shall spread my finest shirt beneath you

And if you happen to feel cold, I shall call the heavens to cover you.

Sweet God will marry us

We need no priest

Come with me,

stay with me We shall love one another

As the black earth the black bread.

By Tera Fabianova

Elementary schooling to equip Roma with basic literacy had been a part of the government's assimilation policy in Czechoslovakia, but in the United Kingdom a large proportion of Gypsies still didn't read or write at all, let alone in Romany. The traditional travelling life had continued in Britain until the 1960's when changes in work patterns and government legislation finally rendered nomadism an untenable lifestyle for the majority of English Gypsies. This means that literacy levels amongst adult English Gypsies are very low, and that many of those who do read and write it is only at a very basic, functional level.

As a grown man Bill Lee was still holding in his memory all those stories that he had first heard at the fireside when he was a young boy, they still ran in his mind, still alive but frustratingly elusive. He wanted to render them permanent to put them into a form in which not only secure them for future generations of his own family but would place them in front of a wider audience.

Bill Lee: "It was because I was ill. You know, you're in a body that won't work for you any more, but your brain is still active. It was driving me crazy. I had to do something. This story that I heard over the camp fires, it just kept coming over and over and over. Then a friend introduced me to a dictaphone and I said I'd try it. We were living in a house at the time, and the house to me was a prison, but outside we had a big motor home. I used to go in there. Sometimes I'd just lay there and talk into it until I went to sleep. Then I'd wake up, and it was still running, with my snoring on it!"


by Bill Lee

The police officers marched up, kicking the cooking pots over. Some of the water spilled over the fire, half dousing it, and the rest went over Anne making her scream as the boiling hot water touched her hands and arms. Tucker jumped up, but was knocked back down by the two police officers.

`You dirty Gypsy bastard,' they spat at him. `You're under arrest!'

Tucker tried to get back on his feet, but the two police officers grabbed him, one holding him while the other rained punches to his chest and face.

`This is what we do to rapists,' one of the policemen shouted to Tucker's wife, grabbing her by the back of the head, twisting her left arm behind her back and forcing her down onto the ground, face first. He then left her and marched away with the other policemen and Tucker. The police officers threw Tucker into the back of their van and took him away.

Bill Lee: "It was the first book I'd read, but then it was strange to see the words written down, because when my daughter wrote it down in text form, I had it in a box on the front seat. I was taking it over to my agent, and I just sat looking at it. And Sylvia said to me - she was sitting in the back of the car - she said, 'What's wrong?' I said, 'It's a very,very strange feeling. The people in this book: my father's in there and all the uncles and people we knew, all these people are in here. For the last three years they'd been in my head, and I'd been talking to them, working with them. I said, 'They're here, but I can't communicate with them any more. They're here, but they're asleep and I can't wake them up.' I was just looking at the pages. I knew then that I had to learn to read, because I had to wake them up again. And that's when I started reading the book."

Oral and written forms - a meeting of two worlds

Bill's work has successfully made the transition from an oral to a written form. But when his daughter made the transcript she obviously had to do much more than just write the words as they were recorded. Spoken language is flexible and has few rules, thoughts, concepts and memories flow from the mind and intermingle in conversation with others. In a culture in which knowledge is stored in the mind and not in books, where there are no letters or e mails and all discourse is verbal, the times that people get together and talk are all the more important. David Morley is a poet, scientist, academic and the director of the writing programme at Warwick University in the United Kingdom. His mother told fortunes on Blackpool pleasure beach and he well remembers the vibrancy and energy generated when his Romany family all got together under one roof.

David Morley: "It's like a lot of eloquent seagulls, all wanting to sound off in the same space. It's both fantastic and colourful and moving and interesting, and also deafening. You'd partly want to run away from it and find the silence amongst all of this talk."

In that banter that was going on in the room, what comes out of it is maybe more than the sum of its parts. It's like a recipe - chuck all the ingredients in a keep stirring and something appears in the middle of it, something precipitates out of it.

David Morley: "Usually what precipitates out of it is one clear and startling story that might or might not be true, but usually is true, about which we can all agree - and no action about it. If you're looking for the one thing that crystallizes out of it, it's usually one or two terrible stories about terrible things that have been done to your family, that have happened, about which we continue to talk and continue to laugh and joke even, but over which no direct action is then taken. We're all, by our talk, walking away from direct action.

"I think I rebelled against that to some degree in the choices of things that I then went on to do. Particularly in politics and education I was dismayed by the lack of action that speech always leads to in those circumstances. You actually need to take on some of this stuff - speak about it and write about it, write journalism about it, educate people about it, and even write poems about it - because that reaches an audience that politics and journalism don't reach.

"One of the things that is coming out of this is that a lot of the issues to do with Romaniness are actually driven by anger. I actually spend most of my time controlling that anger, and it's poems that conduct it, I think, and stop me from lashing out.

"This is an extract from a short poem that opens up with a scene, that very kind of scene, where all your relatives are there, being as garrulous as possible, and what's happened? Well what's happened is that somebody in the family has recently died. It's basically a funeral wake. The conversation is scintillating, it's brilliant, it's incredibly funny, and everybody's not talking about what's really happened. I then start talking about whether we should do something about how this particular person has died, and the response is that we're too small to do anything, we're small people. So, what had happened? There were these circumstances. My grandmother had actually been murdered by a care worker, who worked for the NHS (National Health Service) and then disappeared, almost immediately after her death, and at the funeral we talked about everything but this. So with this you have the great escapism of talk."


by David Morley

Our family eats the funeral sandwiches: pink paste and white bread

My four saucy uncles pinch at their bits of tobacco.

They fall, clawing at fake heart-attacks, each time I come up to them.

We are in the kitchen of my dead grandmother's maisonette.

Her sisters squawk about compensation, weather and the Third Eye.

Telling lies

Brian Belton:

The fact that Dr Brian Belton's father was a Gypsy and his mother came from the East End of London may be one reason why he decided to explore the question of Gypsy Traveller ethnicity in his doctoral thesis. In so doing he has challenged many previously accepted theories and truths. He is well aware that almost every academic book that is concerned with Gypsy culture or history has been written by non Gypsies. He is also very aware of the cultural gulf that exists between different groups in society, particularly between oral and literate cultures which added to the class divide and the Gypsy's general desire to keep their ways to themselves all provide very fertile ground for misunderstanding, ignorance and prejudice.

Brian Belton: "How many books written on Gypsies have been full of people writing down what Gypsies have told them: an oral culture - an intensely oral culture - talking to an intensely written culture. Why should anybody think that that will be something called the truth? Why do you think that? But it's in the library, it's on the shelf, and that's what informs people. It's an empire of written words. It's an empire of writing, that exists separately from people like my dad. Here's a man whose mum was a Gypsy, he came from a society of traditional Gypsies going back hundreds of years, and yet he will pick it up and say, 'This is a load of bollocks.' But, you see, there's no-one going to publish that."

In western sedentary culture the written word has primacy. Knowledge is recorded in books and libraries are society's storehouses of ideas and information, all learned institutions have libraries at their heart. It is through the written word that theories are advanced and academic discourse takes place. Our laws, our history, and our knowledge as well as the works of our great novelists and poets are all protected within the permanence of bound volumes. For those who have been brought up in a literate society, the depths and substance of an oral culture can be difficult to perceive, knowledge which is carried in the collective memory of a community and communicated and developed by word of mouth can seem fragile, transient and only vaguely discernible against the robust and unarguable presence of words on a page.

But what of the subtleties of the spoken word with its mannerisms, inflections, insinuations, half truths and flights of fancy?. It is not moulded, refined and considered in the same way that words are composed for the page, it is transient and improvised, sparring and challenging. It is an arena inhabited by eloquent seagulls in which truth rubs against fiction and the edges between the two become blurred.

Brian Belton: "One thing about my dad was that he could tell anyone anything. Other people would say that's because he was a Gypsy, a rascally rogue. He was a terrible liar, and he was able to tell someone something about themselves or somebody else or the world, and they'd totally believe it. He had a gift to do it, and he got a buzz out of it. You know, a storyteller can manipulate the person they're telling the story to. They learn to do it quite young - I don't think it's something you pick up when you're 48. You know, I was brought up to tell lies. We were told constantly not to tell that person the truth - don't tell the authorities the truth, just tell them what they need to know. We had it drummed into us, and I don't think I'm alone in that. In fact I know I'm not. You tell them stories. You find out what clicks into people's mind and you tell them the story they want to hear. A lot of Gypsies are good at that."

Looking forward

Vojta Fabian
Tera Fabianova's son Vojta has inherited his mothers creative talents, he sings traditional Roma songs but he also writes his own about what the Roma experience in Prague today. He is one of a new generation who is informed by the music, songs and storytelling of the older generation but is still very much a man of today.

[SINGS]: Winter is drawing close, it's going to get cold. Light me a fire, not too big a fire, not too small a fire, just a fire to warm my soul. Romanies, what are we going to do in the cold winter? And then the chorus answers: We'll go into the mountains, and we'll find shelter beneath the rock, where the wind doesn't blow so strong. And there we'll take the children in our arms."

(Traditional Romany song)

Vojta Fabian: "I grew up with music from my earliest childhood and from the age of three dad gave me a squeeze-box. I used to go and sit outside the windows of the pub, where everybody would be singing inside the latest songs - drunkenly. And I'd sit outside, I'd learn the songs and play them. I knew all the rock'n'roll songs."

"I've got no money,

I've got no work because I'm black.

Life is bad because I'm a black Gypsy.

The cops are on their way, so I'd better run.

Why do I steal? I have no choice.

Run, Jo, run, and take that piece of meat with you!!"

(Lyrics by Vojta Fabian - rough translation)

Vojta Fabian: "This is quite simply a song from life. That's what it's like now. That's what life is like for Gypsies today!"

Hester Hedges: "I know that there are secrets that have died with my granddad, and they are Gypsy secrets as well. If you get a man who's really rich in culture, but being a Gypsy, apart from loving and taking care of people, it's a very inward feeling, especially with the men. There's so much that they're very wise with, but they don't necessarily share all of that. There's something that they have inside, but it's not exactly something that is actually written down, and it does die with them."

Bill Lee: "I was wrestling with what I was doing. Was it right for me to be doing it? It didn't feel right. I used to ask my father if it was ok. I knew he wasn't too happy about it, because we grew up keeping ourselves to ourselves, not letting people know too much. Even when it went for publication, I'm still thinking - did I do right?"

Hester Hedges: "If they never pass that on, because of the way the culture works, then we will actually miss that. You know, just things that we will never experience any more, and it's those things that we need to keep. Even though I do believe that the culture will move and adapt, we've still got all that stuff we don't actually want to lose."

Andrej Gina: "In Rokycany, there used to be a very cultivated, educated man, Dr Jagr. He got on very, very well with Roma, especially children. He would come to us. Once, mum was telling old Roma stories. He heard it and was impressed. He said it should be written down. I remember to this day a comparison he made. He said, 'Andrej, look. There's an old church in Rokycany. It is full of history, and if it were demolished, then we would also lose something. It's the same if a story is lost.' This captured my imagination. I talked about it with my mother. I recorded her telling the stories and then I wrote it down. But I wrote them in Czech. Milena Hubschmannova came and said, 'Try writing in Romany.' I tried it. I think it worked. It was the right thing to do."


by Hester Hedges

And we all shared a summer:

She and I, we worked

the fields in common years.

For me, the sun still

brings warmth and light.

But not for her.

The field, a pleasant walk,

it's stillness silencing our idle chat,

found us lazy, sat on hay,

or under trees

that sheltered us

from rain and shadowed sun.

They stand still,

witnesses of

her lavender lips,

resting by clouds.

And the end of every evening

song brought new meaning

to old words.

Until it happened -

Quite quickly it seemed to me,

the idiot I am, who now can only just


how that summer died...

Our people travelled far

when fields were bare

and mornings late.

I watched her life fold away,

the water churns and

empty fruit baskets

stacked higher

Than my castles in the sky.

Mounted lines of moving horses

took her off for winter

with nothing left behind,

no gift for us to keep

lest we forget -

Only a wooden rose,

carved by those tiny fingers:

it lies undisturbed upon the step

amid the dried plants

taken from a summer's breeze

and scattered far and wide.

When a new haze decides to come

I take out my wooden promise

and look at the days that quickly went

sleeping on a bed of heather.

'Gipsy': "Roma culture is many things. It's language, music, maybe it's how we were, and I don't think that all these elements should survive. I'm looking in the future, I'm not looking in the past. The past is behind me."

Hester Hedges: "The older generation of Travellers should really believe that what they instil in their youngsters is going to stay there, and I think that they'll realise that younger Gypsies have to adapt. And that might be in the language they use. But I just don't think that the things that you teach your children are lost that easily. I just think that people will find a way without feeling that they have to abandon what being a Gypsy is."

'Gipsy': "I'm rapping, I'm not playing in a Roma band. The question is, why not? You know, on my album there are a lot of instrumentals from Roma culture. You know, I didn't miss my music. I just changed it to the future."