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June 08, 2007

Traveller Culture: Ki shan I Romani, adoi san' I Shuvani - Emily Kingham has her fortune told by a gypsy woman - and figures out how the fortune teller could be so accurate

Posted by Emily Kingham

After Emily Kingham's encounter with Traveller children at a horse fair (see: Emily Kingham visits a Travellers' Horse Fair and discovers that nothing romantic is today left of Traveller Culture - all that is left of it today is menace and dodgy dealing), she has her fortune told by a gypsy woman and finds another aspect of Traveller culture - how living on the edge can make people wise.

The day after my unpropitious encounter with travellers at the horse fair I was ambling about in the Cotswolds, and came across the classic traveller scene. It was the stuff of romantic fantasy. The kind of romantic fantasy that had drawn me to the horse fair in the first place.

She had parked her vardo ("caravan") in a lay-by. It was Brunswick green with gold carving and a bow-top. There was a hand-written sign alongside it, advertising her services as a fortune-teller. She was sitting by a log fire. Her animals were tethered to the hedge-row. A male companion was smoking a pipe.

I asked if she would read my fortune. We climbed up the wooden steps into her caravan. She had what looked like an ancient pack of Tarot cards; she spread them out. The first thing she said to me was that I mustn't worry about what was going to happen in September.

I have been spending the past few months worrying about what is going to happen in September when my contract for a fairly well-paid job runs out.

How could she have known?

The use of playing cards for fortune telling has been in existence for centuries, probably started by the Romany when they arrived in Europe "back in the day", as prisoners say. Although they did not bring cards with them from their homeland (presumably India), they did bring the "art" of fortune telling, and quickly adapted it to the cards that they found.

"You worry too much about the future. It will take care of itself", she reassured me.

Now she was guessing, I figured. It follows that I worry about the future, and that I worry too much. Besides this, I'm a woman - and women are known for worrying. But how could she have pinpointed September?

But I came to realise the relevance of what she was saying was not so much to do with her reading of the future, but with her reading of myself.

It was a fascinating encounter with a wise woman. The kind of wise woman who told Macbeth he would be king; the kind of wise woman who recognises those in need of reassurance, or, quite simply, recognition. Who maybe exploits that need. (She charged me fifteen quid.)

The lonely and the vulnerable and the needy will be drawn to fortune-tellers because they long to be known and to be comforted. These women of the Tarot have a lot of power in their hands.

This woman used it wisely. "The cards are positive", she kept saying. "Although you've been unlucky in love", - there's no ring on my hand and I'm in my early forties - "you will be lucky", she said. Again, it isn't hard to figure that one out. But I was overwhelmed by the welcome sensation of receiving motherly attention. This woman knew who I was and what I wanted. I basked in her attention.

She said I had learnt to be wary and that this was a good thing. Again, this is easily inferred. As I looked into her eyes I saw someone who was very wary, very wise, very intriguing.

Like the little boys at the horse fair, she knew I was looking for something. The little boys sensed my discomfort at being in a travellers' encampment for no discernible reason other than to partake in touristic pastimes; other than to be a voyeur. They gave me something to observe all right: psychotic, or just downright thuggish, behaviour. This is what "do-as-you-likeys" are famous for, after all: violence and disorder. So it's what they gave me: a souvenir of my time with the gypsies.

When you live on the edge as these people do, you become very good at reading people. One of the prisoners I work with is a crack addict and prolific offender. His speciality is holding up corner shops with fake guns. He is 26 and impressive for his emotional maturity. He is capable of great sensitivity, tolerance and generosity because he had to practise these qualities for his mother, as a child. He reminds me of myself in many ways.

He told me that he refuses to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings because they are "full" of addicts looking for contacts who'll get them drugs. I countered by remarking that this wasn't the usual experience.

"Are you telling me" I asked, "that in a room full of people trying to get off drugs, you end up talking to the ones who are looking for them? Surely that's no coincidence?"

He conceded that he was attracting persistent users to himself. I think it is because he "looked the part". He had that look about him that denotes someone who knows all the moves, who's way ahead of the pack. "It's in your eyes", I told him. And when you're used to living on the edge you have that look about you. It's a sharpness, a shrewdness, an attractive velocity.

This woman was no longer in that mould. Her unlined face had a purity about it that suggested someone born of a different century. Nothing had touched her and yet she had seen it all. She had retired, in the most meaningful sense. The aura she projected was at once charismatic and self-protective. She had her vulnerability - and this is what I recognised in her pale green eyes that had seen pain and fended off hostility. The violence of men, the manipulation of women. She knew so much because she had seen so much, and had taken so much in and dealt with it, contained it, let it go. She had done all this without judging.

Ki shan I Romani, adoi san' I Shuvani
("Where Gypsies go, there the wise women are, I know." - Romany proverb.)

Romany women are wise because they have to be. They have to develop inner strength and emotional resources to deal with the dysfunction all around them. More practically, Romany women, "back in the day", had an extensive knowledge of herbalism. They knew how to heal by brewing a cuppa. Their wisdom lies in their healing and this in turn leads to a feeling of being healed by their presence, and so we bestow them with magic powers. They can read us.

"You're a giver, not a taker", she said.

If I were to repeat everything she said it would render it meaningless. Out of context the words sound cliched - "there will be a move … crossing water", but all these gnomic utterances had their grain of truth, and anyway I was mesmerised by her ritualisation of herself. (I love a good story, but she's right, that makes me wary). I don't believe the words I am hearing, I merely dissect and enjoy them. But I liked this woman and I trusted her because she was kind. She gave me a positive hearing. She sent me on my way with a feeling of calmness that had not been there when I'd arrived. This was despite the fact that she told me something I did not want to hear but that would be too personal to divulge here. But I know she was right. She knows she was right. And it doesn't take a crystal ball to know that.

It is a long tradition in East End gangland that the women are the matriarchs of the family. Similarly, prisoners are almost reverent in their respect for women. This reverence tends to last only for the duration of their sentences. Once they're on the out, it's back to normal. But in prison they are free of the need to make a living, and deprived of female company. They revere the power of women.

This gypsy woman had me in her thrall from the moment I saw her roadside sign. It wasn't so much that she'd found a sucker but that she had learnt to utilise her gifts - the gifts of femininity - to measure them out and to be respected for them accordingly. It would be easy for a woman like her to be overwhelmed by the needy and importunate in her own community and beyond. She has learnt wisdom. She has laid the groundlines for her encounters with the outside world.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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Similarly, prisoners are almost reverent in their respect for women. This reverence tends to last only for the duration of their sentences. Once they're on the out, it's back to normal.

This capacity for self-righteous self-deception is, alas, characteristic of the male of our species in general. “Women hold up half the sky”, said Mao Zedong, but one needs to add — “the heavier half”.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 10, 2007 03:35 PM
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