writing from another someone not from where they are

Cambridge Chavs

Cambridge. It is 35 years ago plus some six months since I first came here. My memories of the town are multiple. But I noticed one or two of them today as I rode through back to the village of Histon. Past a shop in a new shopping precinct that had a clothes shop on the corner, a comparatively modern one time. Memories of shoplifting. On reflection I’m not sure if it was me or whether it was Claude in fact who stole from that shop. I think it was her. Sure I met her and she had a black trousers I think it was, stolen from the shop. She took them into the changing rooms and put them on under the ones she was wearing and walked out. I think I must’ve lived a fantasy doing that, imaginatively. But from other places I did steal. Not clothes but books. I would buy books but I would also steal them when I didn’t have the money. The desire was no less when I had no recourse to cash. I can remember stealing several of the early major works of Michel Foucault. And loved them. I read them. Towards the end of my time in Cambridge when short of money I sold them all, along with other books that had emerged from Heffers over the previous couple of years. Some books I stole to order. My mother, may She rest god’s soul, put in orders which I fulfilled. The tendency towards expensive volumes of course.

Not just that. My memories are otherwise too but my continuing interest in books drew me back to Heffers. Naturally I asked at an enquiry desk if they carried anything relating to Roma, gypsies perhaps, Romany or perhaps Romani. Nothing at all in the whole shop. One reference to a particular dialectical linguistic text. The promise of course that they could get anything profuse thanks for their assistance on my part. But no texts at all. There isn’t very much of course. There are autobiographies of English gypsies which have been successful on bestseller lists I believe. There are one or two Romani language books and the dictionary but even they were not in stock or even normally kept. So in this two-part story this was the first element. The Cambridge world has no active engagement with Romani studies effective enough to impact upon the main book store of one of the great academic capitals. The second element was beautifully surprising.

As I left the shop, I saw a copy of ‘Chavs’ ( the demonisation of English working class or some such title). By Owain Jones I believe. I’ve never read the book although I’ve picked up on its content in many other contexts. I suddenly thought picked up and just check to see whether or not he references the origin of the word ‘chav’ with the Romani word ‘chavo’, also still active as a word within English Romany. ‘Chavo’ means simply a Roma boy, no negative connotations at all, just straight it means ‘lad’, ‘boy’. Its peculiarity is simply that it only refers to Roma boys has spoken about by their Roma parents. In theory at least, although this is not maintained exclusively in practice in my experience with Romani speakers, ‘chavo’ or ‘shavo’ is a Roma male child while a ‘gadjo’ male child, or perhaps ‘ boy’ in a more specifically gender designation is a ‘raklo’. so I looked through the book, flipping ridiculously quickly through the mass of forwards of the different editions glancing at the opening page before referring to the index and finding no indexable reference to gypsy nor I believe to Romany. There was a think reference to ‘chav, history’ or something like that but this particular element of the text seemed to be accounting for the emergence of the particular term in English ‘chav’ in the sense of noting its earliest usages rather than its origin in Romani.

So it leaves the imagination to explore how the move from Romani to English took place. Of course the other great term of familiarity, with connotations of great positivity, his the word ‘Pal’ which is derived straight from the Romani word for brother, ‘phral’. The wider usage of the word ‘phral’ is as a term of masculine endearments and solidarity, ‘thanks brother or ‘thanks mate’. So how did the move of word ‘chavo’ happen. Speculation could be endless but it would appear likely that either the words passing in some forgotten musical ditty perhaps? It could be something extraordinary localised. It could have been one particular usage of it derived from a set of material events and social relationships that produced a particular usage of the word from which the contemporary, negative, inversion of the term is affected.

The pleasant climax to this particular story was that as I took the book off the shelf I noticed that it had come from the best seller shelves. This didn’t have a precise effect on my thinking yet I noticed it in the context of experiencing it as in some way negative to purchase in that context. Yet when I returned it to the shelf I realised it was a misplaced book.


Me involving myself in debt relations with them is in fact knowledge

this is the process of getting to know them

without obligation there is no relation


The sign at the local abattoir favoured by my Roma friends:


Abattoir with sign (partly) in Romani

just enough to properly misunderstand

Driving up the road with E near her house I say something about a boy using the term “raklo” in reference to a Roma boy on the street. She laughs at me. As if I had just said something quite funny that blurred the boundaries of Roma/gadjo. And corrected me to “chavo”.

Two funny things so far

I’ve been just looking through (so far) half of the Romani Lexicon I’ve been compiling for the past couple of years. It’s got many more entries than represent the number of separate words and I’m checking through for evident mistakes and in particular doubles. It’s very interesting reading back through it because it lets me see certain ways that I misunderstood things. So these two really stood out.

I’d written down a phrase “na has passos te pandav man” which I understood at the time to mean “I don’t have any…???”. I recall writing that down. We must have been sitting in the car going somewhere. Our car is often very disorganised and the seats can be reversed at the back meaning that seatbelt attachments are sometimes not in the correct place or difficult to access. What the phrase probably refers to is somebody repeating to me, probably looking really surprised, the phrase “you haven’t got a seatbelt I can put on have you?” – A seatbelt? Do you have a seatbelt!.

I was in Istanbul very early on when I started trying to pick up some words of Romanes. Of Romani. I gone into the middle of the most Roma area of Istanbul I could find without going into the distant distant outskirts of the city. Sitting in a bar, initially befriended by a Roma man who had spent many years and still lived most of the time in Germany I spent a few hours with people coming up talking to me. I had a short vocabulary list with me at the time from Rotherham. People looked at this for something they might recognise. At some point they must have been pointing at or talking about money. They must I thought at the time have been trying to tell me the word for money. So I wrote down the word PARES. Now looking through the Lexicon I see that what they were doing was telling me that money was PARES, which I now know means difficult.

Two more stories I’ve just recalled after telling them to Columbine on the phone and then one more I told her.

I’ve heard a lot of my friends using the word “respect”. I’ve heard them say I respect you for example. I asked them the other day what was the Romani word for respect. The answer I got back was “respect” with the accent on the first ‘e’. At first I thought, maybe it’s from the Latin? But now I reflect it is the English respect, as in I show you respect, brother, phral.

I was travelling in a car earlier today with a slightly wide boy forty-year-old man with twelve children. We were in the car with his wife, one daughter and partner and one of his younger sons. The window was open and as we drove through Ellesmere Green he saw two people he knew or one perhaps he knew. Out of the window he shouted something at them and shortly afterwards I asked him what he’d said: Servos Lamo (I’m not sure what the second word was that it was somebody’s name or their nickname). I asked him what ‘servos” meant and he and his “son-in-law” both said that it meant “safe”, safe as in the slang use of it to mean everything is all right, how are things, respect et cetera.

I speak more and more and understand more and more. In fact I understand just enough to properly misunderstand. I was over with a family yesterday. Hey listen, they said to me, we found a new sofa. It’s a really nice sofa, it’s white, it’s really new and in good condition. Great, I said, looking around at the lovely black sofas in the room wondering why they wanted to replace them so soon. Look, they said, we are just wondering if you’ve got time whether you could bring the car so we could pick it up. We’ll help you take everything out, don’t worry, to make space. A gadjo man just round the corner has offered it to us. I agreed and we fixed a time. What will you do with the old sofas I asked them? Well we can put them in the car, and then I’ll give you a hand will take them up to the tip. Before we left I was told very urgently by people in the family “don’t tell the gadjo that they are for you, tell him the sofa is for us”. They reiterated that several times until I understood or at least part understood. I returned to the house an hour or so later and we duly set off. They went outside and I got in the car to follow them. They crossed the road and walked about 40 m to the corner of the road and I pulled up next to a house. Right opposite practically where they lived. There inside was a gadjo man with a sofa. I didn’t understand what was really happening. Why didn’t we just carry the sofa I tried to ask? It’s just over the road. I was trying this in Romani. One of my friends looked at me and gave a very theatrical wink to me saying “but it’s for you isn’t it Tim taking it to your house?” – “Oh yes! That’s right it’s for me. Let’s carry on then.” So we duly emptied out the car; onto the street poured my spare tyre, the seats that needed to be removed, all three of them, old broken walking sticks, plastic bags full of bits of wood my father’s given me to save for our out door fireplace, bits of old magazines and broken children’s toys, shopping bags with indistinct slightly mouldy things inside them, two pairs of roller skates, a pair of boots the odd shoe here or there and collections of oddments I don’t even recall. All these stood on the pavement against the wall while the sofa was put in. And then everything was piled back in on top of the sofa including all the cushions. At the end the back of the car wouldn’t actually close. But we all stopped my friend turned to me and said “okay let’s go”. I asked him where we were going. Your house he said. We going to your house its your sofa. You mean you’ve got a sofa from me? I asked incredulously. Yes it’s your sofa that’s what we’ve just done we got a sofa for you is really nice isn’t it? I explained that I had misunderstood. I didn’t want sofa. I thought I was getting the sofa for them. No it was for me they told me. It’s your sofa. But I couldn’t face taking a sofa back to my house. My house is already so overwhelmed with things that splurge out onto the street and occupy part of the pavement and the whole of the front garden. I couldn’t explain that but I couldn’t take the sofa back home. I thought about it while we sat in the front room, maybe that little sofa in the front room? I said. Yes that’d be good they agreed. But it turns into a bed I told them. Saskia will want to keep it as a bed. Then my sister emerged in conversation. Might she like it? But the anxiety of taking the sofa to her house and whether it would fit in whether she’d like it would be too much and I had to say no. We were all laughing hard by now. Everyone found it hilarious that I completely misunderstood and the farcical situation of my car overloaded with a sofa sitting outside their house. The sofa I thought was for them. We laughed. We could drive to Slovakia with a sofa in the car I said. We laughed some more I could drive down to Page Hall and shout out of the window “Sedachka, Sedachka” and we laughed some more. What to do with the sofa? My friend tried to phone a couple of people to see if they needed the sofa or wanted the sofa. No luck. My friend and his father went out onto the street and knocked on the door of a neighbour who did indeed want a sofa. And was very happy to have it brought to his house for a mere 10 pounds. So back out to the car I go and load all the odd bits and pieces once again onto a pavement at the other end of the street, no more than 80 m from where I’d just picked it up. Everything back on the pavement and then my friend and the neighbour carry the big sofa and as I am putting everything back in my car I see the neighbour struggling to bring the sofa through his front door and into the house.

Inertia, Poverty and the State

I attended a Lecture by Michele Lancione at the University in Sheffield.

‘Eviction, Enactment and Entanglement: ‘Inertia Creep’ and Committed Positioning at the Urban Margins.’

The Department of, as it’s now called, Urban Studies and Planning, is fertile ground (well at least some parts of the estate are receptive) for someone with an intense productive subjectivity at the heart of their methodology. I was really taken with the presentation. I went because of the mention of the word ‘Roma’ in the title. A couple of friends had forwarded the link about this presentation to me on that basis. What’s drawn my attention is the notion of ‘Inertia’. The presentation was densely illustrated with scenes of eviction and homelessness coupled with energy and activism. During his discussion of inertia I recall the PowerPoint images being of a comparatively wide, faded glory, Palermoesque Street in Bucharest, presumably the site of the evictions. The sides of the road, on the pavements, were thick with some sort of litter, of detritus.

The images spoke strongly in the context of the idea of inertia and how it applies to my engagement with Roma people. I simply like the term inertia because it includes the push and the pull. I think the detritus resonated because so much of inertial commentary around the Roma in the UK concerns things that are disposed of apparently inappropriately. I’ve already written elsewhere and spoken elsewhere about the way that the sofa, thrown out of the house and left on the street, acts both to identify Roma people’s failure to integrate (to respect and understand other people’s distaste for furniture being left to rot outside) yet at the same time acts as a symbol of a shared desire for the new, poverty itself embodied in the detritus, the act of throwing it away a most significant and valuable act.

So in some way the combination of dialogue around inertia and images of rubbish gave me an opportunity to think the Roma communities as caught in inertia, pushed and pushing within inertia. The particular intertial process I was thinking about however doesn’t relate to rubbish or the throwing of things out, their positioning inappropriately. It actually relates to the relationship between new, in my experience, Roma communities in the United Kingdom and state financial provision. People are effectively dependent upon the state. More widely we are all dependent upon the state whilst at the same time, within the context of class relations, constituting more or less effectively or impotently state functionaries. The Roma too partake in this. However the Roma are marginalised from power by the refusal of the state to recognise/accept their dependence, their material dependence, upon state assistance. People within the United Kingdom are not legally allowed to be poor. People falling into extreme states of poverty will find themselves subject to legal constraints, the removal of children from their family environments. The state requires and the continuing influence of an economy of consumption with consumption being a productive act in and of itself, require that all citizens have money.

However the state doesn’t just give people what they need but requires those people to request it from the state. If they do not manage these processes properly they fall into proper financial hardships which result in their poverty, their effective illegality, further alienating them and putting them in both material and psychological poverty with profound effects upon social relations between the genders, between generations and within families and between families with effects on the overall community of people with certain elements of shared identity.

This is an inertial process. In the terms of Michele’s presentation of his work (and without the possibility of me elaborating on this further) the state allows for this inertia to ‘creep’, that is to reproduce itself in new ways in new situations.

It seems that the resolution might be for the state to take the role of no longer requiring people to ask for benefits (state support) to which they have a right but rather that the state assists them in maintaining a standard of living that avoids the descent into poverty. The current system whilst raising some people from poverty equally holds other people in poverty.

A Jester

I just listened to a comparatively recent lecture by Zizek

He made a point via recalling having recently read a late autobiography by a survivor from Auschwitz. The author is quoted saying something which offers justification for cruel but necessary treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. He repeats the criticism made of this book which suggested that it was inappropriate perhaps inexcusable for someone who had witnessed and been subject to such inhuman treatment to pass such similar judgement on others. The point is, Zizek emphasises, that there was nothing good about Auschwitz, it produced nothing good. There is nothing good about suffering, it is not something that you come through with some sort of wisdom gained, it is something that dehumanises, eventually kills and not some sort of route to great understanding.

I was speaking with Zdenko the other day along with his sister Alana and Emilia. I had explained to them that K, the sister of one of our friends, had contacted me and was probably going to ask for money. There were great problems in the household. And that I couldn’t give them money. I explained I had already given some money before. Did you get it back I was asked? That wasn’t a problem I said but I can’t do it all the time. I can’t keep giving money. I won’t keep giving money. They replied to me? But will they give it back to you? Do you think they’ll give it back to you? I assented I believe through my body language to suggest that this would not happen but I said that was not even the reason. It was that I couldn’t keep giving money. I tapped my right hand on to the left of my chest saying: Duhkal Man O Jilo. It hurts my heart. It grieves my heart. They laughed kindly because, as I understood, they had recognised I had spoken a proper sentence in Romany.

I don’t believe I do put suffering on a plinth. There is a lot of suffering amongst the Roma. And expressing it is important. But I’m not expecting to learn a language that is a wisdom of suffering. I am learning a language so that I can also speak as I am with people who will not gain access to my language.

Learning Romani is a hobby. Something chosen out of a particularly un-perverse egoism. A quite deliberate pleasure taking process that engages all my senses. I didn’t know where it would take me when I started. But it takes me into what can feel at times like marshland. Deep Forest.

But I see more and more that the route into the language is a route into knowing people. I’m learning with some help from that Slovakian grammar which allows me to short-circuit certain pattern recognitions but the working memory that produces speech emerges through listening and speaking and recognising patterns in both. So it’s taking me through a marsh at the moment. But it’s also making me see that I’m standing on dry land.That I know where the dryland is. I don’t even know of course if it as a marsh or a forest.

I know it’s full of ghosts, some people have told me that. I’m a fool in that world. I’m not a fool in my own world. At least not in the same way. But I am a fool. A jester for the Roma.

Waiting for Godot: Pozzo and the Lucky People

Waiting for Godot

Now I am, I admit, quite freely in many ways culturally deprived. I read a few novels and little literature in general. I barely ever go out to the theatre and only occasionally to the cinema. This evening I went to see Waiting for Godot. I was contacted by Tom as he and Kate had a spare ticket for the opening-night at the theatre in Sheffield. For starters it was lovely to go there with them. It hadn’t really crossed my mind but of course both of them know many people involved in the theatre (both being actors). But it was really enjoyable to be there entirely on the outside as I’m neither an actor nor a regular theatregoer but also completely on the inside in the company of Kate and Tom. So thank you very much for that invitation I enjoyed myself hugely.

I think I’ve probably talked about the play. I think I’ve probably seen the play even at some point although it might have been on television. But I have no memory of being affected by the play the way I was this evening.  Snippets I’ve seen and the general conversation that I have affected based on no knowledge at all evidently were not the same although the way the player is talked about, its consumption by general consciousness, is not in fact particularly inaccurate. The play does lend itself to a very wide discussion of its potential meanings and a resume of play does successfully manage to communicate this I can see. However on the stage there were elements to it that really surprised me.

I went there hungry to learn something. I realise that increasingly with age I find it difficult to do things which are not in some way either productive of or consume knowledge. So therefore this particular play by the great or one of the great Western intellectuals Samuel Beckett was an opportunity even I was not stupid enough to turn down although that in itself was a close call as it’s actually surprisingly difficult for me to get myself out of my house or away from the things I’m involved with. This was so evident going into the theatre. I’m so rarely in the company of large numbers of people who might indeed be my peers. I choose to spend my time amongst people who do not have English as a first language and come from very different cultural backgrounds to my own. I feel of course that we all share a global culture whether we like it or not their presence here being evidence of that. So I feel like I’m fitting in to a very real momentum in this society. But nevertheless the theatres, or the theatre in Sheffield let’s say, is in some way a natural place for me to be. Indeed I did see two people I knew. A woman from the Quakers his name eluded me much to my embarrassment and my good friend Dave Vanderhoven and Liz his partner. Liz is of course I believe the bursar of Sheffield Hallam University. A very high status position in Sheffield. As such it was a natural place for her to be and not an un-natural place to be for this Dr of philosophy working for the council as I am.

I was reminded very strongly of going to the main church possibly a cathedral in Bratislava many years ago. I went there because I didn’t know what to do and wanted to go out and had seen an advert for a classical concert. I was staying alone somewhere in Bratislava. When I sat in the church that evening I looked around and realised that I really was in the capital of a place. Not the capital of a large country like London but in the capital of a provincial place. Or perhaps more accurately in a provincial capital. The great and the good of Bratislava appeared to be present in that space. As was the mayor, local members of Parliament, dignitaries, people with important financial positions within the city or cultural positions. It was very much a large village atmosphere. My experience was the same on the other two evening visits I’ve made to the Sheffield Theatres as well. It wasn’t the case when I went to see Ken Dodd at the Lyceum though! That was a very different audience. But normal evening events at the Sheffield theatre (its name even eludes me I go there so little) is an evening with the cultural elite of city.

My friend Tom was immediately open in disparaging Sheffield Theatres. In conversation with him and with Kate later on they both voiced frustration at the London centric approach to organising theatre in the city. I immediately realised that in the ten years I’ve been active in community politics, activism, within my area and further afield I have never once come across an activity by the Sheffield Theatres which touches anyone other than that particular cultural elite (and perhaps their children at the sort of lunchtime classical concerts they organise with lions and tigers for children).

The play however is the thing. As they say. I found it intensely comprehensible. I enjoyed it as if it had a really clear plot from beginning to end. It is a brilliant piece of theatre. Brilliantly written by a very clever mind. A very insightful mind. I was shaken by the extent to which I identified with Pozzo. How I experienced the character was that he held Lucky by a rope around his neck. Lucky was poor and was his slave. Pozzo was a man (in this production I don’t know for others) with an educated voice and a broad vocabulary. I understood him to be me. Lucky was the “Lucky People” to quote a famous book title on the Roma. Lucky was the Roma. Lucky was also other impoverished people of course. But right now and very poignantly following on from the day I spent with Roma families he was the Roma. He was poor. He was kept on a chain. I understood myself to be keeping poor people on a chain. Holding them to me. Wanting to keep them near. I could give them their freedom and I could give them or rather share with them all my wealth and my food to bring them out of that poverty and to bring myself down to their level. But I don’t. Like him I fear death. Like him I know that it’s just awaiting the death to come. And out of the fear of death coming I avoid taking that decision to give away my worldly wealth. It’s not a straightforward thing I’m writing. I don’t think it’s the explanation of that particular element of the play but it really did shock me. I saw Pozzo as holding Lucky, me as holding the Roma on a chain. Is me holding them back by the not giving up of myself. It was actually quite shocking. It managed to shock me. That particular understanding dissolved at a certain point. Certainly the dancing can relate to my idea of “Lucky people”. But also as Lucky began to display some sort of agency. To dance. The dance being caught in the net. And then to think with his thinking hat on. At that point I started to see Lucky as an element of me rather than the something outside me. But in fact that psychoanalytical projection fails and I prefer to rest with the notion of Lucky as actually something separate from Pozzo. I think the notion of the lucky people is very relevant to the play and to me. But is a wonderful piece of writing.

It’s astounding to think how the words that are written by the author, the actors acting them out and the audience the multiple audiences can all have a meaning that they apply to the words. That’s the beauty of such great writing is that it allows so many imprints upon it without it losing coherence. The actors did a very good job in managing to convey language and keep it open.

They are clearly waiting for God, particularly in the second half. In the first half focused very much on Pozzo’s avoidance of death I felt that Godot was death. In the second half however it was more clearly God. If they didn’t wait for him he’d punish them. But it’s an endless wait of course that can only be finalised in death. Though they think they’ll hang themselves but they never do. Because they’re waiting. Anyway I enjoyed myself.


Relationship with cousins is particular. With the Roma people I know their cousins are their closest friends. They choose amongst their cousins, it’s not that just because someone is your cousin be your closest friend, rather that your friends come from amongst your cousins. And you got so many cousins that this doesn’t really pose a problem.

Here in Sheffield there’s people who come from here have cousins I presume. Knowing them even in the rather tame British context does give you access into an increasingly distant world. In fact in some ways that’s peculiarity of the cousin relationship. That cousins in fact take you well away from your immediate family and experiences. Well they do amongst this dispersed first generation middle-class man.

If I were to live near my cousins then I’d have a very different experience. If they were here they’d be living out in Macclesfield perhaps or probably somewhere up on the smarter sides of the Manor. I’d see inside that world and understand it, here it’s commentary on contemporary politics. But don’t get that opportunity.

facebook and cousins

Facebook. Friends on Facebook. Some of my cousins are friends on Facebook. I see people there being very close to each other. Being silly with each other. Being sentimental. I also see people who I can only assume are actually frightened, in this generation, by Muslims.

I opened a post today which was a link through to video showing a demonstration purportedly by a Muslim group somewhere in London driving the police back whilst various things are shouted including some recognisable phrases in Arabic. The text below it tells us rhetorically about the fact that there are areas of London that a no go to the police. This is followed by hashtags connected, particularly noticeably, to patriots and to Donald Trump.

What a populist he is.

And it’s my cousins who are listening to it and daring to put it out publicly. I don’t say anything otherwise I’d never hear it. Except increasingly out there in the press.

It is if they relish in some sort of coming battle imagining I don’t know what. Do they think the others want the same? To start the battle when their side is so weak. No on both sides people want to start the battle. We the Liberals say that education will matter. That people develop as they want to at a speed they are comfortable with in this system. If you force them into corners they will feel obliged to fight to rebel and fight.

But of course that’s what was done to you my cousins. To the working class. To parts of the working class. They were given increasing amounts of education and responsibility and power. They were given these in order to put them off from actually fighting. They maintained an increasingly disciplined attitude to themselves. This wasn’t done to you because somebody was afraid to crush your rights but because, pragmatically, if you were to start fighting then no sort of advance could be made. Peace is needed to move on. War doesn’t achieve that.

And then are the great empires, the Chinese Empire, the Roman Empire. The British Empire. Change moved forward through these because of the control. Because of the forced peace that comes with Empire, within the bounds of the Empire.

So we are real imperialists those of us who wish war not to take place. We are global imperialists.


Britain is managing control of its borders

“Britain is losing control of its borders”

Britain isn’t losing control of its borders. Borders are just making increasingly less sense. We have been warned for years that the time would come when big migrations of people would start again due to wars and environmental pressures. While it’s happening and closing our borders isn’t the resolution. The resolution is managing the movement of people.

Britain is managing the control of its borders.

If we close them down what happens? More wars. Except they will be even closer. In fact there will be right next door where the people are trying to get in.

It’s not a joke. This is a multicultural society. People do have different practices and want to preserve them. The very good reasons.