Memories from a Romany Childhood P11 by Chris Smith
This week we are pleased to bring you the eleventh story in the series ‘Memories from a Romany childhood' by Romany Musician and previous TT manager, Chris Smith from Herefordshire.
Growing up in the heart of the Herefordshire countryside in the 1960s and 70’s meant being close to nature and noticing the passing seasons. Mam worked on the land and would take me along until I started school, and during the holidays after. One of my earliest recollections is being in the fields searching for beetles, and shouting “beet, beet!” excitedly when I discovered one.
My family have always had an affinity with animals. We had chickens, dogs, cats, and horses. I even kept mice for a while, until they all escaped. Me mam was not happy about this. I had stick insects for quite a few years, that I found fascinating. I loved the way they could be indistinguishable from their surroundings.
I liked to be invisible too sometimes, and would often sit under the table that was covered with a long tablecloth, and quietly listen to the adults talking. This could be a bit embarrassing for my parents if I repeated what I’d heard later. I soon learned not to do this, even when I’d overheard something I didn’t understand.
Mam would always take me with her when she visited our relatives in Evesham. Aunt Mimey, and uncle Nelson lived in a house close to the hospital in the centre of the town. We would catch the bus from Tarrington and make the 90-minute journey several times a year.
I loved accompanying me mam on these excursions. At the back of aunt Mimey’s house was a large covered market, where I spent many hours looking around the various stalls. When I was a teenager I was allowed to go alone and spend a large part of the summer holidays staying with my aunt and uncle and working alongside my cousins.
One of the main jobs during the spring and summer months was onion pulling. My cousin Neil was the best onion puller and could pull twice as many as me. I would often stay over at his house and I thought the world of his parents, my cousin ‘young Nelson’ and his wife Bobbie, and Neil’s sister Sonia.
The worst part about working in the onion patch was the smell. You didn’t notice it much in the fields, but when the working day was over and you got home, the rancid aroma was infused into clothing and skin. No matter how much you scrubbed your hands it would never completely remove the smell, which could linger for weeks after
I have very few regrets about my childhood but one thing still haunts me to this day. Mam and Mrs Scott were working in the strawberry fields, alongside a number of other women who had been bussed in and were known as ‘The Mordifords’, eponymously named after the village where they lived.
I was eleven years old and had spent most of the morning fishing for minnows in the brook with a net and jam jar that Mrs Scott had brought for me. At the end of dinner break, I was sent to ‘Pop Harfords’ to buy a few sundry items including fly spray. ‘Pop’s’ was our nearest shop and easy to get to across the fields.
As I left the shop and walked down the lane I bumped into some Gorger kids, whom I knew, that were slightly older than me. I was keen to fit in and be accepted and was pleased when they stopped to talk with me.
One of the older boys noticed a bumblebee busily gathering nectar on a nearby plant, and encouraged me to kill it with the fly spray. I really didn’t want to do this, knowing in my soul that it was wrong. Peer pressure at a young age can be unmanageable though, and the older boys were chanting ‘do it, do it’. So I sprayed the insect.
As the other boys cheered and whooped, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame for inflicting pain onto an innocent creature. Tears welled up in me and I slowly backed away, horrified at what I’d done. I ran from the other kids back towards where me Mam was working with the sound of the older boys laughter ringing in my ears.
When I told Mam and Mrs Scott what had happened they comforted me and then asked what I had learned. The incident taught me not to be influenced in such a way again. Since that day I have never harmed another living creature. Now I collect spiders or wasps and carefully place them outside if needed. I learned to follow my own path and to listen to my inner voice. The guilt of what I did is still with me though. I think it always will be.
Main photo: Chris Smith's mam Elizabeth(Betty)Smith with her favourite horse Elsa and her dog Toby in the 1980’s (c) All photos courtesy of Chris Smith