Let me sing of my greatest
grandfather’s knife. He graved
the tooth with scrimshaw cobs,
so he might remember to handle
the blade as gently as his horses.
Kept it sharp enough to gut a trout,
split a clutch of pegs. Sharper
still to cross palms with silver,
he called it churi, sweet-talked maids
between their lady’s petticoats.
How strange those ﬁngers
might squeeze a noble waist.
Left on the grass,
an open wooden hand.
churi: a multi-purpose knife used to make pegs.
Overnight they arrive in the gap
between the prefabs,
whose sides are dashed
with pebbles and a sign swung
on one screw:
NO BALL GAMES.
Three boulders are planted
on the grassy path.
crowned in whitewash,
two-ton, like the chip
the teacher pointed out
on her shoulder. Sent her off
with a slap to the Head.
She comes here instead
to ﬁzz open pop
as she sits on the middle one,
listening for his quad’s buzz
up and down
the Queen’s highway,
the rider shirtless and at speed
without licence or helmet.
Blushed with blood and false summits, outcast,
I keep a familiar distance. Without wind cheats
or the right shoes, I have words with mountains.
Accent bending in the wind, I eke aloud
Wordsworth’s Gipsies, the lines hung over me
hawk-like, as his cloud-double slips the Screes
toward Appleby. Our luck lands blackly there too.
He saw us as spots, a spectacle, knots.
The same fight picked in private ﬁelds.
Is it time to move on? Let me sit this stone
on the marker’s pile. Tell the capital I am a Traveller
under open sky and yes, our bonfire’s still raging.
Screes: a fell in the Lake District between Patterdale and Ambleside.
Something about not wanting
to be touched
kept us coming back.
Or the smell.
I’m galloping away on it, now.
You caught me ﬁrst
by the beach. Lids tight,
lungs full of hoss,
nodding to the hooves’
I couldn’t tell you
we were Gypsies,
admit to the skim
of blood that can’t settle,
that the landscape
I am in has to change.
You’d never take in
the air at Appleby Fair,
so thick with horse
and home. Shirtless kids
in the rain
and the sound
of wet hoof on wet stone.
Granda Jack plays patience in his new ﬂat,
his heart ﬁxed on Kings, on returning
the deck to their suits: ﬁrst ace cards, numbers,
then court. Across the ledge his carved elephants
parade trunk-to-tail, backlit by an Indian summer
brewing pink. Their meaning was lost on me, then,
like the door, always propped open by the pot plant
we bought to celebrate his moving in.
This game soon has him beat. He jumbles cards
back together, soughs. We go to the park,
key open sardines, headless silver ﬂounders
in our oily ﬁngers as we pinch them out.
This is the life, he says, pulling bones through his teeth.
I didn’t know I was born until he told me
what it meant to call a spade a spade or a Traveller
a pike. How a boy my age hid from the Reich,
bound hooves in hessian and hay to ﬂit town
in the dead of night, wraithing cobbles to keep quiet
our bad blood. Or how we moved into white woods,
burnt ﬁddles to warm ribs, sang low in the slack tents
their boots stamped and upturned. Black triangles
needled to our chests like stars, badges of shame
that marked us work-shy Zigeuner.
The death camps devoured us. Tonight,
the shapes that keep me from sleep are square
and on paper, the kind I falter over:
Ethnic Origin, Please Tick One:
White □ or Gypsy □
Zigeuner: the German noun to describe ‘asocial’ Travellers.
You speak from this edge and colour
the impossible grey, who for once,
holds its breath as you dare to be
so yellow and small, smaller
and more yellow than anything
to ever ﬁnd this shore. In the eye
of your whorl I see them slipping,
picking cockles at night, ﬁghting
the tide. Not of this sea but that one,
though I don’t know how or why
they map a difference. It’s all salt.
There is a delicacy and a hardness
to shell, as slight and hollow
as the moment you hear the words
illegal immigrant missing
change to human skull found.
Tonight’s ﬂung open like a window,
the grass littered with slivers of hoof
the farrier’s hand shears loose,
scythes to shoe the passing ﬂock.
Appleby would shoo us, too, if it could.
The locals draw curtains, bolt doors,
shut up shop: take off quick as the keepers
gave my wander onto private grounds
the boot. I’d seen it in the paper: Wrath of Tipp-Ex Divorcee Who’s Down
to her Last Castle, the Mail resolved
I’d somehow mind. What a fucking state.
Hollow halls. Curtained walls. Ramparts
a millennium high and we’re the feud
you pick? Offshore toffs sold the NHS,
sunk BHS, even tried to sell Blencathra
and there’s no ﬁght in you, yet? We string
our ﬁddles high to keep from their reign.
When manes touch, our pitches are as tight
as cramp, to shiver such songs
from ﬁngers to ear bones. Confess.
11 Prefatory note
15 The Impression of Water
16 Family Silver
21 King Faa
22 Teesdale Erratics
23 Big Fat Gypsy Swindle
26 At Eildon
30 The Sly and Unseen Day
31 Tinker’s Tea
34 The Graver
35 Wild Camp
36 Ironwork, V&A
42 A Stopping-Place
46 Playing Cards
48 Self-portrait as 100 Travellers
49 Wonderful Fish
52 The Romani Star
53 Le Bûcher
58 Travelling Light
60 Singing Lesson
65 Prophet Mark
67 Dirce (The Bull’s Shadow)
75 Notes and dedications
77 List of illustrations
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