'Our Romany culture will always survive': Raine Geoghegan
Late last year Raine Geoghegan launched a second pamphlet of poetry that documents and celebrates her Romany heritage. Her family picked fruit, vegetables and hops in Herefordshire and Kent, and many of her poems are inspired by actual events, personal stories, and photographs. In an interview with Write Out Loud Raine, who formerly worked in theatre and turned to writing after a long spell of illness, talks about her Romany heritage and her love of the language, and why she believes the Romany culture, linked to the earth, nature, and the hearth, will always survive.
Do you have an ancestral urge to wander? Tell me about your family background. Have you spent time on the road travelling yourself?
I guess I must have as I have never really felt settled anywhere. I was born in the Welsh valleys, my father died when I was 19 months old and my mother took me to Middlesex where we lived with my Romany grandparents in a council house. At present I am living in Herefordshire but prior to that my husband and I have been on the move staying in temporary housing while we look for a place to settle. We are considering going back to the Malvern Hills. It is a place of immense beauty and creativity. I love the way in which the light falls on the hills, how it is constantly changing. I also love being on higher ground and looking across the Herefordshire countryside. It was Herefordshire where my Romany family used to pick hops and my mum always maintained that there was no place quite like it. I am seeing this for myself and love to visit Bishop’s Frome where the hop fields are, even though they use machinery now in place of hoppers.
My mother was born in a Gypsy vardo [wagon] and was 14 when she moved with her parents and sister to a brand-new council house. My grandparents must have found it rather strange after living in a vardo for so long.
“‘Once in the sitting room/ Amy’s mouth opened, wide./ ‘Dikka kie Alf.’/ He came to the door. ‘We could fit our whole vardo in ‘ere,’ she said./ This is just one room.” (‘Just One Room’, published on the Travellers’ Times website, 2018).
When did you start writing about your Romany heritage?
Many years ago I wrote a radio play about my granny, a strong Romany woman but never did anything with it. In 2017 I was chatting with my mentor James Simpson and I mentioned my Romany roots and he asked me why I wasn’t writing about it. From that time I wrote about nothing else, the memories kept surfacing and I was never lacking in material. I even had signs from my granny confirming that I was on the right path. One such sign was on a Sunday late morning, my husband and I had eaten breakfast and I read him a piece about my granny, called Yerma. I read it aloud and at one point I felt an acute pain of deep emotion. A tear was making its way down my cheek, when all of a sudden a bell rang. I asked my husband if he had the mobile phone switched on but he hadn’t. I got up, went into the hallway, picked up the bell that my sister had given me on my 60th Birthday, which had ‘Let’s party,’ written on it. It sounded exactly the same as the bell that we had heard and I came back into the kitchen and we both knew that it was my granny giving me her blessings. There were three more signs and I really did feel that I had connected with my ancestors, who were helping me along.
[This picture, right, is of Raine's Romany and Welsh family]
Your work seems to celebrate a way of life that is going, or gone, such as hop-picking. Is that true, would you say? Or does this culture survive? Do you see your role as helping to keep it alive?
The Romany culture will always survive. It changes and adapts to the pressures that society and the government put on it. Obviously with hop-picking, that’s something that has completely changed due to the machinery that is now used. However, hopping was an activity that was largely carried out by Romany travellers, they were incredibly good at it. They worked hard, picked more hops than the [non-Romany] gadjes and earned good money for it. My granny spoke about this on a tape that I recorded many years ago. She said that her family, the Lanes and the Ripleys, picked the most hops in Bishop’s Frome in Herefordshire and earned more money in one week than they had earned in a month doing other things. Romany culture is more than just picking hops and fruit, it’s a lifestyle that is closely linked to the earth, to nature and to the hearth. The Romany spirit is kept alive and felt by all Romany people. I liken it to the Spanish duende. Lorca, the poet and playwright writes:
“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
If you bring Romany folk together, you will sense the camaraderie and passion that binds them. I grew up in a family that loved to sing, dance and play music. It inspired me to go on the stage, to perform, to create. Creativity is something that we Romanys never lack.
“before I played the spoons/ I played the bones/ before I played the bones/ I listened/ to me father/ playing the spoons/ to me granda/ playing the bones/ and as I tell you this/ me son is listenin’/ the bones, they are a waitin’/ and the spoons, well they’re in the kitchen draw.’ (‘Bones ’n ’Spoons’ - they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog.)
Your two books come with extensive glossaries of Romany words, which are both useful and educational. I blame my own ignorance, but I didn’t realise that a lovely word like ‘kushti’ was Romany.
I have loved rediscovering the Romany language (jib) that some of my family used when I was a child. The language originates from India. It is based on Sanskrit and Hindi and is most beautiful. I have enjoyed using specific Romani words in my poetry and prose. Of course ‘kushti’ is one of the most well-known words that can be found in the UK. It was used extensively in the TV programme, ‘Only Fools and Horses,’ along with another ‘wonga,’ meaning money. The East End is famous for its Gypsy Romany legends and there is a special language that combines East End words with the Romani jib. It’s called Cant. My grandfather Alfie Lane was from the East End. He was from a family that were both horse dealers and flower sellers. I remember him speaking in the Cant language, although I don’t remember all of the words he used. What I do know is that I am very fortunate to have the experience of growing up within such a lively and dynamic family. I am both nourished and inspired by them all.
Your poems and stories generally paint a delightfully rich and positive picture of Romany life. But the odd eviction is mentioned, and a short story in your new collection, ‘A Little Flower girl’, tells of a child encountering prejudice at school. Do you hope your writings will help to change the way Romany people are seen, especially given the political climate?
I am furious at the way in which the Romany culture has been ostracised and abused in our society. The racism that it attracts is like no other. It is as if time has stood still. Just look at the way in which [home secretary] Priti Patel spoke about the Romany community in November 2019. She proposed that the government should confiscate the homes of those Travellers suspected of trespassing. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian on 13 November 2019, said that it amounted to ‘legislative cleansing.’ Her government are in power now, and I am seriously concerned. One Travelling man said: ‘If this proposal becomes law, the police will have the power to kick my door down, take my home, arrest me and put my children into care.’
In my previous pamphlet Apple Water: Povel Panni I wrote about the Travellers being moved on by the police:
“One of ‘em kicked the kittle off the yog. He shouted. ‘Pack up and get going, you’re not welcome ‘ere.’ I ‘ad to hold my Alfie back. I ‘eard the gavver (policeman) say, ‘bleedin’ gypos.” (’Keep Movin. Apple Water: Povel Panni Hedgehog Press 2018)
What I am pleased about is that there are now some amazing organisations and groups that are actively campaigning for equality, balance and justice within the Romany community, but it is an uphill climb. Antigypsyism is ingrained in our society and it will take a very long time for it to be transformed. The story that you mention is based on my cousin’s experience of being in school and her treatment at the hands of her teacher, a person who should have been looking out for her.
“ ‘You’re holding the queue up, move along, be quick.’/ I moved along but I ‘eard ‘er say to another teacher./ ‘dirty little flower girls.’/ somethin’ snapped inside me ‘ead and I said, without thinkin’. / I’m not dirty.’ ‘Dirty Little Flower Girl’, they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog.)
I hope that my work does help in a small way to redress the imbalance of the way in which Romany people are perceived and treated, but for me it’s about highlighting just how rich and incredible the Romany way of life was for my family. It took a lot of courage to maintain their unique lifestyle in a brutal and often unjust society. Both the men and women were exceptionally strong – well, they had to be. I am just doing my bit. I am currently writing about my Welsh family. I was born in Tredegar in the Welsh valleys, where Nye Bevan the health minister lived and formed the NHS and in 1948 he met the NHS’s first patient, 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory, who had acute nephritis, a life-threatening liver disease, which sadly was the condition that my father died of. The Welsh people also had it hard.
You’re currently working on an anthology of Roma Women’s Voices. How is that progressing?
I am very excited about this project and for some months now I have been searching for strong Romany poets, writers and artists. It is to be an international project and so far I have writers from Canada, America, New Zealand, and various parts of Europe. The anthology will focus on “women’s experiences of being Romany or Didikai, half Roma, half gadje”. So far the John Roberts Heritage Foundation has offered us some funding and we will look to crowdfund as well as obtaining further funding from other sources. It’s a big project but I have help from a wonderful poet and editor and am looking forward to receiving the submissions. Anthologies of this sort are rather thin on the ground. The University of Hertfordshire and PEN American Centre published a book called The Roads of the Roma in 1998 and reprinted in 2004. It is just one of a few anthologies written by the Roma for the Roma. One of the editors was Ian Hancock, currently Professor of Romani Studies at the University of Texas in Austin and the first Romani member of the US Holocaust Memorial Council. If there are any Roma writers or artists who are reading this and would like to submit to the anthology, or become involved, then please contact me. My website is www.rainegeoghegan.co.uk and I can be contacted on Twitter or via Write Out Loud.
Thanks so much Greg for interviewing me and giving me the opportunity to talk about my life and work.