Memories from a Romany Childhood P12 by Chris Smith

11 August 2020

This week we are pleased to bring you the twelfth story in the series ‘Memories from a Romany childhood'  by Romany Musician and previous TT manager, Chris Smith from Herefordshire. This will be the last story for a while to give the opportunity for the collection to be compiled in preparation for an autobiography.  We want to say a huge thanks to Chris for keeping us entertained over the last four months with his heartfelt and engaging stories, stunning photo collection, and thought-provoking lyrics. Our stats show that TT readers have been enjoying the features just as much as we have been at TT headquarters. 

When I was a teenager I happened across a picture of the Twelve Apostles, a series of rock stacks on a beach near Port Campbell, next to the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia......writes Chris Smith. For some reason, the picture resonated greatly with me. I felt as if I’d seen them before, and had a strong mental image of walking with someone along the beach looking up at the grandeur of the formations rising out of the waves.

I liked all things Australian, especially the Aussie films that were being shown as a season on BBC2. We used to have an end of term film showings at Canon Frome School, one of which was ‘Walkabout’. I have watched this film many times since and never tire of its magnificent beauty.

The Twelve Apostles, Port Campbell, Victoria Australia
The Twelve Apostles, Port Campbell, Victoria Australia

I begged me, mam, for a poster of the Twelve Apostles, that she eventually bought for me. I recall saying that I would one day walk on that beach, which upset Mam as she never liked her children to be too far away from her. She would say “Don’t be divvy, that’s the other side of the world!“ The thought would not leave me though.

I often had the feeling that I didn’t quite fit in anywhere, yet I craved acceptance. Many other Traveller chavvies appeared to want nothing more than being like their parents. I wanted, in fact, needed, more. I knew that working on the land, or going out calling was never going to be enough for me. 

The Apostles at sunset
The Apostles at sunset

Although Travellers have a rich history, and family life is incredibly important, I knew there was another path for me, one that was less traveled and more difficult, that I had no choice but to walk.

As a teen, I was expected to help out in the summer holidays with tasks like bale hauling. This was hard, heavy work, but the pay off was getting to ride on top of the unsteady load on the way back to the farm, before disembarking and loading the bales of straw into the barn. Most of the older local kids helped out with this.

We actually had a smoking den made of straw bales, and used old hubcaps for ashtrays! Looking back it’s a miracle that we didn’t burn the barn down with us inside. The possible dangers never crossed our minds, probably because when you’re young you think disaster will never strike. Apart from the health and safety aspects, this rarely happens today because very few farmers still use traditional oblong bales, instead of rolling the straw into giant circular ones.

The Brickshed 1992 - Me, Lez, and the late Zania Wood
Chris Smith's band The Brickshed 1992, Chris, Lez, and the late Zania Wood

Things have changed considerably in the Traveller community over the past forty or fifty years. Traditional stopping places have disappeared, as have many of the historically significant work roles that Travellers played in local communities. We no longer make up the bulk of the seasonal workforce many farmers once relied upon. 

Travellers have been forced by the push of persecution and the pull of needing to earn a living, into a variety of other professions. As more children leave school with an education, we have moved into a myriad of other positions.

I originally thought about working as a journalist as I’ve always enjoyed writing, but was deterred from doing this by what I thought of as my own limitations due to my ethnicity. I had not heard of any GRT journalists in the 1970’s. As far as I was aware there were no peers in this profession that I could look up to. 

Chris Smith  on the beach at The Twelve Apostles 1997.
Chris Smith on the beach at The Twelve Apostles 1997

When I spoke about this ambition to other Travellers, including my own family, it was generally frowned upon and derided, with people saying things like ‘Travellers will never be accepted in jobs like that’. It doesn’t take much when you’re a teenager to be dissuaded from following your heart.

I read voraciously and appreciated literature. Reading took me to other places and worlds, infinitely more interesting and exciting than my own. As much as I relished village and small-town life, I ached for something that I didn’t believe I could have, fulfilment and recognition for being good at something that made a difference to myself and others.

I never minded being alone and following my own path. I’ve always taken pleasure in the company of others but mostly on my own terms. As long as I had music and books I could amuse myself. As a teen, pretty much all of my pocket money and any earnings from fruit picking was spent on these items. Even today one of my greatest joys is searching through the racks in a record store.

The Brickshed 1992 - Chris , Lez, and the late Zania Wood
Chris Smith's band The Brickshed 1992 - Chris, Lez, and the late Zania Wood

After leaving school in 1977 having gained five top grades, I worked my way through a variety of jobs including farming, factory, and shop roles until I eventually moved into care work in the late 1980s as a residential social worker. For the first time, I had found a post that inspired me. In 1993 I successfully applied for a position as a Day Centre Officer for the local authority, at a centre for people with learning disabilities, and moved to Ross-on-Wye.

When certain friends have entered my life I’ve sensed that I have always known them. It was like that with Lez, my songwriting partner, and so it was with Alison Fletcher. When she walked into the centre on her first day in the job in 1994, we just looked at each other and started to laugh. I recall thinking ‘Where have you been all this time?’. I am convinced that these individuals are part of my soul group, and that we have lived many lives together.

Alison Fletcher, one of Chris Smith's  best friends and soul mate
Alison Fletcher, one of Chris Smith's best friends and soul mate

I felt completely comfortable with Alison, and she was the first person at work that I came out to about my sexuality. I had already disclosed this to my parents after meeting my first boyfriend in the mid-1980s. Me Dad was brilliant when I told him I was gay. He said he had always known, and that it was no one's business but my own.

Mam took it harder, probably because she was worried about how difficult this could make my life, but she told me she would always love me, no matter what happened. Mam said, “You’ve got a good heart my boy, and the Lord will always look after you”, and so far she’s been right. 

Looking back it’s clear that my family had known since I was quite young. They just chose not to discuss the matter, and apart from a few people, still don’t to this day. This is something I can live with, because how many of us discuss sexuality of any kind in the Traveller community? Although, hopefully this is now beginning to change.

I’ve been incredibly lucky with my choice of friends. Alison’s family have treated me as one of their own. They live their lives without prejudice or hate, and have been there for me through some difficult times. Jamie, Ali’s husband, had spent time in Sydney, Australia, and often spoke about his experience, saying how he had loved his time there.

Chris Smith and Alison Fletcher
Chris Smith and Alison Fletcher

A few years later the centre manager mentioned one morning during the briefing, that he would support any member of staff who wanted to job swop and gain experience at another day service. I left the meeting wondering how far I could take this. Later that day I walked into Den’s office and said “I want to go to Australia”. Den Humble didn’t even blink. A great manager, who I learned most of my management skills from, he simply said “Set it up then”.

The career swop with a woman called Marlene happened in January 1997. I received job offers from every state in Australia, but I was drawn to Geelong in Victoria. Geelong is forty minutes drive from Melbourne nestled in Corio Bay. The second biggest port city in Victoria, it is known worldwide for its wool production and is the gateway to the Great Ocean Road.

Alison’s sister Kathy, flew with me and stayed to help me settle in for the first three months. As soon as we exited Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, I had the feeling of coming home. This sense of deja vu followed me wherever I went. I had no trouble finding my way about the area, and Kathy couldn’t understand how I appeared to know in advance what was around the next corner when we were out driving and sightseeing.

Chris Smith on the Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia 1997
Chris Smith on the Great Ocean Road Victoria Australia 1997

I revelled in my post at Coriolong Community Programmes, loving everything about the job and Australia. Three weeks after arriving, I met Andrew. I had been running a relationship and sexuality course from a room above the courthouse cafe. At the end of the session I walked through Johnstone park and saw Andrew sitting on a bench, eating his lunch.

We hit it off immediately, and again I had the familiar feeling of always having known him, and he felt the same. We moved in together within a month and everything just clicked. There was no doubt in either of our minds that it was the right thing to do. 

Andrew only came out to his family after meeting me, his father had died some years before, but the night he introduced me to his mother is etched upon my memory. Many of Andrews Family lived in Corio, one of the poorer parts of the city, and the venues there were traditional Aussie inn’s. The people frequenting them were hard working and knew how to handle themselves, including the women. 

Chris Smith and Andrew at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia. 1997
Chris Smith and Andrew at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia. 1997

When we walked into the packed pub, Nancy, Andrews's mum, rose from her seat and walked straight up to where we were standing in the middle of the bar. She looked me up and down slowly before saying loudly, with a voice that sounded like a box of rusty nails, “So Andrew, this is your gay lover is it!” Everything in the room stilled and went deadly quiet.

I thought my heart was going to stop and wanted the floor to open up beneath me, before Nancy said, “Anyone who’s got a problem with them will have to go through me first”. She glared around the room defiantly. No one moved or said a word, and gradually the hubbub rose again as normal. 

Nancy always made us welcome in her home, and we never left her house without food from her freezer. Andrew comes from a large family who all accepted us, especially his aunt and uncle, Bubby and Neil, whom we visited often. We had a wonderful year before the time came, all too quickly, due to my work visa coming to an end, for me to return home.

Andrew and Nancy, his mum before she passed over
Andrew and Nancy, his mum before she passed over

Andrew arrived in the UK a month after I had returned. He could only get a holiday visa for six months, but we had a great time, with him meeting my family and friends, and I took some time off to show him the country. Mam and Dad got on fine with Andrew, and he thought the world of them. He was genuinely touched when they bought us both Christmas presents. We wanted to stay together but needed to prove to the authorities that we had lived in a relationship for two years for him to move here.

This was the best option for us as my parents were elderly and needed more support. My brother and sister were both married, so Mam and Dad’s care was left to me. I don’t regret being in this position and have no sense of resentment towards my parents, who have now both passed over some years ago. They gave their all to me, and it was only right that I did the same for them.

Chris and Andrew at his parents tan in 1998
Chris and Andrew at his parents tan in 1998

Andrew had to leave the UK due to his visa restrictions, but six weeks after going home attempted to enter the country again for a further six months, to enable us to meet the two-year requirement needed for him to stay permanently. I was at Heathrow airport to meet him, excited to be seeing him again. I waited impatiently and watched anxiously for him to appear through checkout. When he didn’t, I knew something was wrong.

Suddenly an announcement came over the tannoy asking me to go to the immigration section. When I saw how distraught Andrew was my fears were confirmed. We were led into a room where I noticed the table and chairs were bolted to the floor. The immigration officer said he believed that Andrew was entering the country with no intention of leaving after six months. We admitted that was indeed the plan and explained our situation.

The officer stated that Andrew would have to return to Australia on the next available flight and apply from his own country. We tried to explain that this meant we would never be able to meet the two-year requirement, but he appeared uninterested in our predicament. I then realised why the table and chairs were bolted to the floor because I certainly wanted to throw them around the room.

Andrew at Chris Smith's parents tan 1998
Andrew at Chris Smith's parents tan 1998

After virtually begging, we managed to get the officer to agree to Andrew staying for one week, after which he would be forced to leave the country. I contacted my MP and various agencies, none of whom could change, or wanted to help in the process. When I took Andrew to the airport at the end of an emotional week, it was one of the worst days of our lives.

I saw Andrew again when I returned to Australia at the end of 1999 to see in the millennium with him in Geelong. When we were together it was as if we’d never been apart, but we only had a month. We went back to the Twelve Apostles and walked on the beach again, just as I’d seen in my mind when I was a teenager. 

Me and Andrew at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia. 1997
Chris Smith and Andrew at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia. 1997

Some people like to differentiate between what they see as different kinds of love. Gay love, straight love, familial love, or love between friends, and even pets and animals. I don’t make those distinctions. Love is love. Even when it breaks your heart, it’s still the only thing that’s real or worth having.

It’s been twenty years since Andrew and I have seen each other, although we speak regularly still. I had planned to visit Australia again for six months in March this year, but then Covid19 hit the world and halted our plans once more. Someday, when this pandemic is over, we will see each other again. Until then, as Andrew always says, “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya”.

Main video: Brickshed Music, from the Corn Circles album - 'Why am I feelin" like this' was inspired by events that take place in this story. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon UK.