Gypsies, The Little Tramp and Thieves
By Gordon WeissFebruary 22, 2012
What do Charlie Chaplin, 654 Australians, grey nomads, Henry Lawson and a winter crime wave have in common?
When Charlie Chaplin received a letter from another old man in 1971, he secreted it in a locked drawer. Perhaps bemused by a sliver of an unknowable past, he certainly was not muted by shame. Read by the great comedian’s daughter after his death in 1977, the letter gave evidence of a Roma lineage, already asserted by Chaplin in his autobiography. But the letter’s author went further. He claimed that far from an East London debut, The Little Tramp had been born “under the wheel” of a caravan, to use a Romani phrase, at the sooty edge of Birmingham in a Roma community known as the Black Patch.
Romany Songlines in Sydney, Australia
In suburban Sydney in 2012, at the Coach and Horse pub in Randwick, the barmaid hollers, “Oy, Gypsy!” to a 45-year-old patron. “I was born in the back of a Ford Zephyr,” says Thomas Hern. “Afterwards, my father sold it. That’s the Gypsy way, like burning the caravan.” Even comfortably slouched, Hern’s bright green eyes preserve the quick light of his first profession: touring boxer. “But the word ‘Gypsy’ should never be used by anybody who’s not a Gypsy.” That advice Hern shares from lips poised above a schooner of midday Guinness. “It’s OK for us to call each other that. It’s not an insult.” Exceptions — such as the barmaid at his favourite watering hole— obviously are tolerated.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph also is not coy. A series of articles over the past few years have highlighted what the paper calls “Gypsy clans,” arriving annually in Australia. “They may be illiterate but they are rat cunning and it gets handed down from generation to generation,” says an unnamed investigator. The “Bitumen Bandits” use stand-over tactics, targeting old people and flood-affected homeowners with high-pressure offers to fix roofs and re-surface driveways. The menace is real. The gangs, some with records for violent crimes in the UK and Ireland, have fleeced vulnerable and gullible Australians of millions of dollars. But are we talking Gypsies?
“It’s articles like that that make people frightened,” say 46-year-old Yvonne Slee, a Queensland-based Roma from Essingen in southern Germany. “When these were published, my son was called ‘Gypsy’ at school. Once I explained who the Roma are, everything was OK.” She notes with alarm an impending Brisbane skinhead festival. The faux-Nazi website Blood and Honour Australia promises a better future for the white race. It also awakens Slee’s instincts for racial persecution, sharpened by her German youth. Speaking about last month’s European release of Kriegerin, a film about neo-Nazi gangs, the German film director David Wnendt said, “The views of the extreme right are becoming increasingly acceptable in mainstream society.”
In Europe, “Gypsy” is still a dirty word, and a dangerous one. There are now an estimated 12 million Roma worldwide, with perhaps as many as five million spread throughout Europe and Turkey. In a paper called The Pariah System, the Roma academic Ian Hancock of the University of Austin, Texas, mapped the anti-Roma dogma that is so intimately entwined with European history, from the church and princely-sanctioned persecutions of the 15th century, to the pseudo-scientific racial writings of 19th century nationalists.
The culminating point was, of course, World War II, when the Roma were scheduled for destruction in Nazi concentration camps and by military death squads. In early 1940, some 250 Roma children were among the first victims of a series of experiments conducted by German doctors at the Buchenwald concentration camp. The children all died after several days when exposed to Zyklon-B crystals. In the following years, gas was used to kill millions of European Jews. Known to the Roma as the Parrajmos, or great devouring, perhaps as many as a million and a half European Roma died too.
The global financial crisis has peeled back the thin veneer of modern Europe’s tolerance for the Roma. In Italy in 2008, a photo of an Italian couple calmly sun baking within a stone’s throw of two drowned Roma girls on an Italian beach inspired an outcry. In the past few years there has been a sharp rise in anti-Roma violence in Hungary. Recently in Slovakia the state funded a wall to separate the majority Roma population from their Slavic neighbours in the town of Ostrovany. In a 2011 poll 81 per cent of Czechs thought that coexistence with the Roma was “problematic”. Far-right parties have rioted against the Roma in Czech and Bulgarian towns.
Police raids on Roma encampments in Italy and France, as well as forced deportations, have continued for the past few years. When France expelled 8,000 Bulgarian and Romanian Roma, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said this was a situation she “hoped Europe would not have to witness again after World War Two.” In October 2011, The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned that attacks on Roma “by extremist groups threatens not only the physical security of individuals but… also the overall stability and credibility of our States.”
“We’re like the Aboriginals,” says Hern, pausing over his stout. “Our culture doesn’t fit with modern societies. But really we’re Indians,” he says, flourishing proof of the Roma’s sub-continental roots with a count to five in Hindi and Romani. Beginning in the 11th century, the Roma are thought to have been displaced multiple times, driven first into Persia from northern India by the invasions of the Mughals, then onto Ottoman territory, arriving in Europe some time around the 14th century.
Europeans thought the dusky-skinned Roma were Egyptians, and called them as much: Gypsies. The sheer weight of social forces arrayed against a nomadic Asiatic tribe wandering across the shifting jigsaw of Europe’s borders for half a millennia is testament to the stubborn strength of Roma culture. In the popular European imagination, the Roma always have been figures of romantic fantasy and disdain, from Bizet’s dancing seductress in Carmen to the Tintin comic book The Castafiore Emerald, in which a campsite of Roma is harassed by local townspeople and accused of theft. “If people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m Welsh,” says Hern, laughing. “That way, if anything goes missing…”
In 1991, the Australian actor Jack Thompson returned from the UK with a fretworked Gypsy caravan, which he later donated to the Powerhouse Museum. The symbol of the caravan has been recognised by the Roma as their universal cultural signature, with a spoked-wheel emblem the centrepiece on the international Roma flag. Caravans were colourfully decorated and kept scrupulously clean. When an owner died, the caravan was burned, along with his belongings. On late-Victorian roads, Roma caravans were a common sight, and the first recreational caravan — forerunner of today’s Grey Nomads — was built in 1886. Most caravans had little stoves.
“Gypsies won’t tell you these things, but every Gypsy man can cook,” says 74-year-old Romano Solo. When the Powerhouse acquired its caravan, Solo was called upon to perform a Roma rite of blessing. His neat, fibro-clad house in Sydney’s western suburbs preserves Roma traditions, such as the his ’n’ hers washing machines that once washed his clothes separately from those of his Greek Roma wife of 51 years, now deceased. With women forbidden from cooking during moxadi, or menstruation, every Roma man is a chef for at least a few days each month. “But we avoid barbecues,” Solo says. “Gypsies believe that evil resides in the shadow of men, and we won’t touch meat over which a man’s shadow has passed.”
Solo dates the arrival in Australia of his forbears from the 1850s. “Gypsies like my grandfather took to droving, because it came naturally to them,” he says. Solo worked as a detective for a few years in the 1950s until his Roma mother told him he was turning hard. “Apart from strict rules on hygiene and diet, there are rules on ethics. The thing a Gypsy fears most is merreme, banishing from the campfire.” He describes his book, Gypsy Pie, as a lament for the Roma past. “We had no armies, no land, just Romanstan, the land under our feet and in our hearts.” Each year at Sofala, a small rural New South Wales gold-rush town, he joins an influx of Roma revellers, horses and freshly manufactured motorised caravans to recall that past.
Tinkers, singers, thieves, horse-traders, dancers, acrobats, palm-readers, prostitutes, restaurant violinists, nomads, and permanent oddities speaking a foreign babble at the edge of towns — all are true and untrue. The many dialects of the Roma and their dizzying caste and kinship networks, both defy easy definition and yet characterize the Roma as one of the most singular and fascinating global cultures. Following World War II, there was an outpouring of Macedonians, Greeks, Czechs, Italians and others to the New World, and the Roma went with them. They masked their ethnicity with European passports, discarding to a greater or lesser degree the burden of their heritage.
The first Roma almost certainly arrived in Australia 1790, when Lazarus Scamp was transported to New South Wales for stealing a sheep. Henry Lawson, who wrote of “a dash of Gypsy blood,” is said by at least one genealogist to have been part Roma, a fact disputed by his descendants. Jan Wenger, great-great-granddaughter of an English Roma who migrated to Australia in the late 19th century, is a Queensland academic who recently mounted a Cairns exhibition of Roma references in Australian history. “It’s impossible to know how many people are Roma, or have Roma ancestry,” Wenger says. “But if you look at the Australian regional papers over the past 150 years, there are articles on bands of Gypsy musicians turning up in country towns.”
At the Swiss Grand Hotel in Sydney’s Bondi, the silver pencil inscription beneath an antique photo hanging on the wall shows Roma enjoying the beach long before the hotel was thought of: “Gypsies Bondi 1900.” In June 1902, the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal describes 40 people who “claim to be Greek” being stopped from crossing state boundary lines. “The men wore a profusion of gold coins as buttons,” and customs official Mr Darcy considered them “Mexicans of Greek descent, like the class camped at Bondi.”
“We have the secret name we are born with, the name we travel with, and the name we use when speaking with the police,” says John Scarriot with a loud laugh. Scarriot is an 83-year-old Romanichal, or English Roma, who now lives in Kwinana, Western Australia. Trained as a steeplejack in his native Leicester, his parents and seven siblings migrated in 1937 to Australia, where he worked as a coppersmith and rigger. “The old people, we’re all dying out, and the young people don’t give a damn anymore about Roma culture, the language,” he says.
And yet, with such a troubled past in their countries of origin, it’s no surprise that just 654 people living in Australia claimed ‘Roma’ as their ethnicity in the 2006 census. Janos “Rigo” Bedak is one. On the front door of his Bondi apartment, in a burst of irony perhaps, a metallic strip warns “NO HAWKERS.” Rigo (which means Black Bird) is 74 years old and proud to be called Gypsy. “Gypsy, Gypsy, yes I’m a Gypsy.” Born in Hungary to a family of musicians, the considerable wings of this retired acrobat and boxer are clipped by old age, but his laugh rises from his heart as he describes his upbringing.
“The Hungarian white people, they don’t like the Gypsies. They love their music, but they don’t want to live with them,” says Rigo. “But I was okay, I was strong and fought back. And I wanted to be an artist.” At 12, Rigo became a trapeze artist and caravanned across Central Europe. “My family loved me in the circus.”
In 1956, when Soviet forces invaded to crush the Hungarian uprising, 17-year-old Rigo escaped. In Sydney, he worked as a silver service waiter in restaurants including the Chelsea and the Bourbon and Beefsteak in Sydney. “If I asked people if they were Gypsy they would probably say no, even if they were,” he says. Roma activists believe that the true figure of Roma and their descendants in Australia is possibly in the hundreds of thousands.
In Australia, the outward signs of what may be a considerable Roma presence are still vague. Rigo’s daughter, Sarah Bedak, is a singer with the Sydney-based band Lolo Lovina. While her brother, a Sydney playwright, regards himself as Jewish, she left her Marrickville home to spend a year living in a small village in Serbia, learning the language and music of the Roma that she hadn’t learned from her father. In the words and melodies of Rigo’s past, and with a heritage of Roma violinists, Sarah’s music provides a semblance of living Roma culture in modern Australia.
And what of the supposed seasonal “Gypsy” raids on Australia? Those apprehended by police have been predominantly Irish nationals, and are probably Irish Travellers, nomads related to a long-displaced Celtic tribe speaking Shelta (a creole Irish tongue), who have roamed Ireland for centuries. Along with the recent phenomenon of New Age Travellers, they share the English and Scottish campsites that were traditionally set aside by British authorities for Roma families. “Djelem, djelem — I’ve travelled, I’ve travelled,” says Hern, who now works as a high-rise window cleaner in Sydney’s central business district. “But I go to work every day, hanging off a building. I’ve got children to feed, same as everybody else.”
The Karavan! Festival at The Standard, Taylor Square Sydney, March 10, features Lolo Lovina, and a lineup that includes Roma bands from Turkey and Serbia.