Reforging the ‘Broken Language’ Romani Poetry

Series 3 Number 16 - The Dialect of the Tribe

To my horror (and to my family’s delight) the one time I ever cursed a fellow man I killed him.

The dialect of my tribe is Romani. Sorì simensar sì mèn: ‘We are all one: all who are with us are ourselves.’ I am Romani and I am Gaji.

Gaji is Romani for non-Romani.

Here is my story.

My mother is a Poshrat, a half-blood Rom. She is the seventh child of a seventh child and claims to possess second sight among other powers. During my childhood in the 1970s we were bitingly poor. My father had died young so my mother strove to earn a living by shape-changing overnight from pseudo-Gaji to Romani. What she did was valiant. My mother’s Roma identity provided the means for some local distinction. Identity – not money – picked us up from the floor of grief and poverty. We traded in the silver of family history and mythology, caring little for the fault line between fact and fiction. It was an apprenticeship in blagging. I wrote and sold my first stories and articles at the age of twelve disguising my age with a cheap typewriter.

We lived in Blackpool. The tide of people moved in and out every week whether those days were bright or brown. Blackpool was a fairground. The town stretched its adolescent summer into October by illuminating the promenade with chains of light, rocket trams and electric tableaux. Then Blackpool withered into a ghost town until Easter. Blackpool liked Gypsies when they made money and paid taxes. Gypsies rented booths on Blackpool seafront and told fortunes. They displayed photographs of themselves with celebrities. Gypsies read Tarot cards, unveiled crystal balls, flogged white heather and rag-and-boned. 

We did a fair bit of ‘Gypsying’ ourselves in the 1970s. Oddly enough, in a Gaji town like Blackpool there was still awareness of caste. Gaji were superior to the Roma. Roma were a head above the Gypsies. Gypsies pulled rank on Irish tinkers who themselves towered over tramps. I did not subscribe to a caste-check between Romani and Gaji. I knew some Roma had little time for Gaji while every Gaji looked down on Roma, even when they themselves dressed up as Gypsies and danced flamenco badly. As we might say, Mendi shom sorkon cheerus kairin’ a godli yek te waver – to which I offer no translation.

My mother nurtured remarkable prejudices against so-called non-Roma travellers and tinkers. When they knocked on our door to sell pegs or lucky heather she sent them packing. They cursed us but she counter-blasted with a superior Roma Curse that never quite seemed to work. Nevertheless she believed in her powers with all her heart. To my horror (and to my family’s delight) the one time I ever cursed a fellow man I killed him. I was sixteen. A local Gaji criminal called The Finn had been threatening our family for years, and was trying to fit me up with crimes he had committed. I called him out on the street and spat on his shoes, cursing him briefly but coldly. I was dizzy with rage and amazed to escape the encounter in one piece (I had not known the gangster was asthmatic). The Finn was arrested the next day and died in his police cell overnight. I was appalled. My folks were exultant. My mother saw it as ‘the powers’ passing forward. I saw it as the police withholding The Finn’s inhaler:

Later, he was lights out on a cell floor.
The coppers let him ride out his asthma.
By the evening, he was old.
At dawn, they found him cold.
Runt Finn, they said, you’re running nowhere.
Finn of the Wiles. Finn of the Filch, with his pickers and stealers.
I saw him out of depth a hare in the open,
antennal ears, rickety lope,
dodging the police on The Golden Mile.
In a swirl of litter, something or nothing the shape of him.

(from ‘Finn of the Wiles’)

This unshining example of my behaviour shows how some Gypsies allied themselves with spiritualistic pursuits. There was glamour to the terror of visiting o kole doonyaste, the other world. My mother said she could read your future in your hand (she even had library books on the subject). She held séances and read the Tarot for paying customers. Money talked in Blackpool and my mother could make the dead talk for a price:

Picture how a claw hammer angles under a settled nail,
grinds against the top grain, then slides out the clean metal
fresh from first hammering. Rosa works her audience,
and with her claw for grief, she plies her darkened séance.
An unknown sound is ground for a gnomic reading.
Ghosts arrive on time. Her daughter’s upstairs frapping
the floor: one tap for ‘no’, twice for ‘yes’, with three
slow bumps for some spiritualistic ambiguity.

(from ‘Smoke, Mirror’)

The full article appears in MPT 3/16 'The Dialect of the Tribe' 

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