The Wind on the Heath
John Sampson (ed.)
University Press of Edinburgh
‘But now upon the Gypsy camp
A drowsy silence is descending;
With bay of dogs, and neigh and stamp,
The silence of the steppe is blending;
And everywhere the fires are slack.
All is at rest; the lonely moon
Upon the tranquil bivouac
Pours lustre from her highest noon.
An old man sits, alone, awake,
Within, before the coals, to take
The warmth, till the last flicker dies;
And through the screen the night-fogs make
On the far plain he bends his eyes…’
(Pushkin, p. 52)
Amidst the journals, grey literature, and door-stopper textbooks that make up doctoral reading lists, a researcher can sometimes yearn for something designed to entertain rather than simply inform. Nevertheless, the reading of texts outside one’s area of study or, heaven forfend, fiction automatically brings about a pang of guilt so severe that it can manifest itself in cold sweats, a feeling of impending doom, or, worst of all, a compulsion to undergo remedial reading. Ever keen to fudge the issue, it was with some relief that I came across the above book. Originally compiled in 1930, ‘The Wind on the Heath’ comprises over 300 short stories, poems, and excerpts from larger works. Sampson describes the book as an anthology of the Gypsy spirit, and as such does not limit himself to exclusively-Romani work. Instead, he focuses upon the key cultural identifiers common to most GRT groups, and in my opinion the collection is the richer for it.
Sampson has ordered his chapters thematically and as follows: The Dark Race, The Roaming Life, Field and Sky, Gypsies and Gentiles, The Romany Chye, Gypsy Children, Sturt and Strife, Black Arts, A Gypsy Bestiary, Egipte Speche, and Scholar Gypsies. This allows an examination of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller culture that flows, and also lets the reader see issues like mobility through the eyes of Roma themselves and the sedentary public who romanticise it. As such, issues such as formal education are explored by Roma characters:
‘”Are you not aware,” said Preciosa, “that there are men who do not learn, yet know all? I am of their number; so are all Gypsies, men and women. Our mind is different from yours; our understanding makes us older than our years. We sail over strange seas, and turn to a pole-star unknown to you; for since it is by our skill and our industry that we live, we are proficient in them from the cradle…”’ (Cervantes, p. 125).
Such a rendering of GRT educational values is rare even nowadays, so to see it put across through a voice hundreds of years old demonstrates how little we have progressed, and stresses the need to start listening rather than preaching according to sedentary values.
Although this was valuable reading as far as my doctoral studies go, it was difficult not to get swept up in some of the language, which was truly beautiful. Another example from Matthew Arnold (p. 304) is
‘In Autumn, on the skirts of Bagley Wood,
Where most the Gipsies by the turf-edg’d way
Pitch their smok’d tents, and every bush you see
With scarlet patches tagg’d and shreds of grey,
Above the forest ground call’d Thessaly-
The blackbird picking food
Sees thee, nor stops his meal, nor fears at all;
So often has he known thee past him stray
Rapt, twirling in thy hand a wither’d spray,
And waiting for the speak from Heaven to fall.’
The anthology is full of wonderful snippets like this, so much so that I was had to discard five or six examples to keep this review to a respectable size.
If I had a criticism it would be the same criticism that applies to any anthology about Gypsies which includes work by non-Gypsies. The same old tropes and stereotypes are trotted out, from the duplicitous old crone to the weaving of dark Gypsy magic on unwary travellers. There is nothing inherently wrong with these stories – after all they do form part of the zeitgeist and thereby contribute to the society with which GRT communities engage, but they are liable to misinterpretation without commentary explaining why such tropes are incorrect. I felt that the anthology could have done with a more modern foreword to explain why such works were included and how they contribute to false perceptions of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers. A small thing, perhaps, but important to communities who are routinely misrepresented in the press.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order