'Come Write Me Down' - three poems by David Morley

14 February 2024
Come Write Me Down

the Romani poet and academic David Morley has given the Travellers' Times permission to publish three of his poems; one based on a song performed 1906 by Betsy Smith, the Romany Gypsy singer; the next about Lil-Engreskey Grav (Oxford); and the final one about an unfortunate lecture on the Romani language that David once gave.

Are any of our readers related to Betsy Smith? 

‘Come Write Me Down

after a Romany song performed by Betsy Smith, 1906

I have a diamond in my eye

and no care in the world despite you.

I’ll give you gold and all my pearls

for the Romany families freezing

from dewfall until evening

on their Oxfordshire Traveller sites

in Redbridge Hollow, and Oakley,

at  Standlake and Woodhill Lane.

Come write me down, said the singer,

come write me down.


It’s not your gold or pearls, my love.

I have no need of either

as I unroll your moneyed mind

and find no heart for your being kind

to the Romany children freezing

from moonrise until morning

on their English Traveller sites

with no water, heat, or light.

Come write me down, said the singer,

Come write me down.


Redbridge Hollow, Oakley Wood, Standlake and Woodhill Lane are Traveller sites in Oxfordshire. Some lines are adapted from a song ‘O write me down the powers above’ performed by the Traveller Betsy Smith in Creech St. Michael in Somerset on 9 August 1906.

Radcliffe Camera building. By Diliff - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1284604
Radcliffe Camera building, Oxford (Lil-Engreskey Grav). By Diliff - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1284604

A Town Made of Books

The Romany name for Oxford is Lil-Engreskey Gav. For Travellers it means two things at the same time: a town made from books and a town made of readers.


I love the Dr Seussness of a town built from books.

The spires dreaming on slabs of OEDs

tapering as they scale the skies

in step-gables of print and paper size.

Hardbacks heaped up as wall stones

for Merton and Magdalen Colleges.

A million unread Georgian poetry anthologies

tottering to the pinnacle of Tom Tower.


Fine print crenelations of Radcliffe Camera.

Oxford commas pouring from word clouds.

Oxford sentences clogging the plumbing

under St Giles, Cornmarket, and Carfax.

Chained books in special collections,

filing their manacles like Magwitches.

And the pubs, their doors propped wide

with entries into the pages of heaven.


Romany reads you like a book.

Its tongues are twinned and twined.

The language rainbows

and unrainbows speech.

Lil-Engreskey Gav also means

a town made of readers, or for them,

of flesh and blood buildings domed and doored

by a Sheldon, an Ashmole, a Pitt Rivers.


Cold colleges hewn from Purbeck

and granite. Fledgling scholars

flittering like verbs through quads

in their noun-dark cloths of night and light

chiselling into prose the texts of their tombs

in an entry inside a dictionary.

And at dusk the sherry of short story.

The high table of the novel and supper of RP.

Lil-Engreskey Gav conjures a ghost-sense too:

a mortar of love, a bond that binds

those college walls, roots the buildings:

carves words written and read into life,

worlds-in-telling, adoration of their magic,

a gift that holds an edifice aloft,

makes a library a love affair,

leaves a reader alight with lore,


the words now reading them in turn

into souls of light, storied structures,

highest windows, flown buttresses,

singing belltowers, dreamed spires.

Gentiles and gentle readers,

Romany reads them like a book.

Its tongues are twined and twinned.

They rainbow and unrainbow speech.


Gentiles is an old Anglo Romany Traveller term for non-Gypsies.

Come Write Me Down
Campaigners on their way from a Drive 2 Survive temporary camp in Manchester to join a demo against the police bill and it's anti-travelling laws (c) Bela Varadi


At an academic conference I gave a paper

on Romany language. I spoke of the leopard-leap

of its dialects from branch to branch

of Sanskrit, Anglo-Saxon, and Romance.

The open purse of gold of Romany loan words

both given and received in kind, or kindness.

The caravan trails of its tongue across continents,

its mouth wide to the tides and shoals of speech.


How fleet of foot the words needed to be

in their quicksilver changeling disguises.

Why nouns grew spring-heeled with meaning

and verbs vroomed off, words which Travellers

might ride on, or hide behind from hard law,

gadjos, or the poisoned pens of parliament.


I spoke all this poetic stuff as prose.

Then I leaned out of art and said, ‘My friends,

when police come for Travellers, we move on.

Language shows who we are, and it is better

to be invisible. But spoken language moves

like meltwater under ice. Speech thaws into life’.


There was cold applause. A door whined open.

Catering trundled in, clattering trays

to hurry us along to Q&A.

A young lecturer raised his hand, saying:

What is the point of listening to this trash?

Nobody spoke or spoke up. Tea was served.


All three poems by David Morley, and published by the Travellers' Times with his kind permission.

David Morley is an award-winning poet and an academic, of Romani heritage. David's most recent published work was Fury.

(Lead photograph: Ryalla Duffy, with permission from daughter Verity Duffy)