Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times on the road in the 1950s
Maggie Smith-Bendell (Adult Biography)
Many of us were born out on the pea fields. I was born on the pea field at Thurloxton, just up the road towards Bridgwater, so I felt right at home in the peas. Me dad always said that the best pickers were born in the fields, but I knew that was a load of bull to get me to pick faster. He must have thought me daft.
Born the second of eight children, Maggie was a Traveller—where working was a mainstay, where horses were treated better than family, and the seasons determined where you parked your wagon and for how long. It was a life of traditions, culture, and family, but being Romani also meant a way of life met with resistance, discrimination, and abuse. As a child, Maggie flourished in her surroundings. As an adult, she would spend every waking hour fighting to protect and maintain a culture and a people that were under never-ending assault.
Maggie Smith-Bendell’s biography is a fascinating and rare look into the lives of the Romani Gypsy. Maggie lived within an incredibly tightknit community that valued tradition and thrived on the open road. Their nomadic lifestyle brought plenty of adventure, danger, uncertainty, and joy, but also its share of mistrust and mistreatment from the gorgies (non-Romani people) living in the towns where the Romani came to trade, shop, and sell their goods. Maggie’s words are so mesmerizing and poignant, that we somehow become immersed in her wonderful Gypsy world: smelling the smoke from the family’s campfire; feeling the blackberry brambles tear at our flesh; and weeping as we follow a casket moving slowly to its final resting place. It’s quite an accomplishment given what little formal education she received.
Perhaps the most inspirational part of Maggie’s story was her tireless advocacy work on behalf of the Romani people and her commitment to preserving their culture. Although she could have settled for a quiet, married life raising her children, she chose to dedicate her adult life to fighting for the Romani’s right to own and live upon their own land and to help them acquire homes, an education for their children, and healthcare. Maggie mentions the obstacles, defeats, and setbacks in her work, but she knows that it’s the victories that matter. The chance for another Romani to be able to claim a little piece of this planet as their own. As Maggie put it, “There is no feeling like the peace that comes with having a base to live from, to have a gate of your own to shut at night. The settled community take this security for granted, having known no other way of living. This is right and proper, but for us to share that security is really something else. It’s like catching up with the rest of the world.”
At eighty years of age, Maggie continues to fight for the rights of Gypsies and their way of life. Some have branded her a “land grabber” while she—on her Linkedin page—refers to herself as a “trouble maker”. Regardless of titles, she seems to take it in stride. After all, she knew from quite early on that the world was made up of different kinds of people—those who would accept her people and those who would curse their very existence. Maggie describes an encounter her father had with a police officer and wrote, “Some people did stop to have a word with us, and we enjoyed it when they took the time to speak. Others would pass us by, keeping their eyes on the road or in the hedge, not even glancing at the side of the road where we were stopped. Me dad always said that it took all sorts to make the world. It wouldn’t do for us all to be the same, would it?” Perhaps not all the same, Maggie, but a few more Gypsies might not be so bad.
* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com