Cambridge Chavs

by pasdelabas

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.