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A Shout From The Attic: Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves

Ronnie Bray recalls the travelling people who were often seen when he was a boy.

Gypsies sold clothes pegs door to door, tramps begged for food in the street and from door to door, and thieves just helped themselves. Some tramps made regular calls to houses that were sympathetic, chalking trampsí code on the gate posts to tell other wayfarers the good news. Homes that were hostile also got their mark, warning itinerants to keep well away, for fear of having the dogs set on them, or worse, being reported to the police - a body that found tramps unattractive and enjoyed moving them on, only because they didnít know what else to do with them. Most people had sympathy for tramps.

The romantic and sympathetic view was that their lives had been destroyed by lost love, active military service on one butchering field or another, or that they had failed in business and suffered social disgrace that forced them to abandon their families and friends for the anonymity of the highways and byways of England. Those not of a romantic nature saw them as idlers who begged for bread. How walking up to thirty miles a day in all weathers can be described as the action of an idler, escapes me. Idlers stay where they are, and are too feckless to move.

Tramps had restless blood. Whatever brought it on they could not stay for long or settle down. That was a life they had relinquished, and apart from periods of illness and their eventual demises, going was the only way they knew. Romantics envied their apparently carefree life: going where they would, living the free life. Romantics that have never slept under a hedge in a storm, or never gone hungry for three days, and never been moved out of town by unsympathetic citizens, or their representatives, thought tramping was romantic. Tramps didnít find it romantic, only absolutely necessary.

Gypsies were also ambiguously perceived. Romantics saw gypsies as enviable free spirits roaming the countryside at will, living lives of ease in horse-drawn vardos: stopping at dusk to cook, perhaps a hedgehog or a stolen chicken, on a campfire, playing plaintive airs on weeping violins, dancing with flashing golden earrings and colourful dirndl skits, making their mysterious and beautiful dark looks at once attractive but denied: desirable but forbidden, their existence free from the toils and cares of life that weighed down ordinary mortals who lived drab lives in brick prisons. Gypsies, it was said, did not steal, they merely helped themselves.

According to some folks, Gypsies were also somehow tangenitally related, poor relation style, to Romanies, much being made by the ignoriscenti about the nobility of Romanies and the wretchedness of the low estate of mere gypsies. As if to complete the tristratification of wandering society, another classification was added: that of Irish tinkers. However you stacked gypsies and Romanies, tinkers were the societal troglodytes, dwelling well below ground zero. They were thought worse than thieves.

It is true that one such tinker family who came to my attention, did seem to lack some basic culture, especially in the realm of child care, but to make a case that all Irish travellers lived as they did is to claim far too much, and is based on bigotry and prejudice, which are poor advisors.

Gypsies and Romanies seem to have disappeared from Englandís roads. Tinkers compound their perceived idleness by tarmacadaming peoplesí driveways and collecting scrap. Thieves are abundant and are mostly home grown. We have never needed to import them.

They do not steal loaves of bread to feed their children. In many cases they are children. Without reference to the age and health of their victims, they cut swathes through the fabric of society with blithe indifference for their victims, many of who die as a result of their injuries: injuries that are inflicted by fit young men and women on the frail and elderly who can not defend themselves. The softer the target, the better and easier for them.

The Tramps are largely gone, Romanies and gypsies are disappearing onto permanent legal sites, but the thieves are an ever present reminder that someone out there wants what you have got, and that they will stop at nothing to get it.


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