My Big Fat Gypsy Book

SAT - Eva's aunt Adeline sat on the steps of her mother's vardo (caravan)
SAT - Eva's aunt Adeline sat on the steps of her mother's vardo (caravan)
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Eva Petulengro, like most of the population, has been hooked on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. And it’s as well because the millions of viewers who have been watching the Channel Four saga of spray tan, extravagent look-but-don’t touch courtship rituals, and flamboyant frocks, have helped propel her rather slim gypsy volume right up the best seller list.

“I was in the The Times best seller list the other day,” she muses. “I can’t believe it, darling. My mother would very proud.”

At the last check, and today is World Book Day, Eva’s debut book, The Girl In The Painted Caravan, was number 42 in BookSeller.com charts, no mean feat for a woman who admits that many of her family struggled to learn to read or write.

Eva’s been ably assisted, she admits, by her high flying daughter Claire, star astrologer, and author, in her own right.

“She’s a lot more organised than I am and helped put my thoughts down,” says Eva. “She tells me, mummy, now I know why you made me go to school - you wanted me to become your secretary!”

What’s more, the second instalment in the saga, focusing on the Blackpool years, is already ready to roll whenever publishers Pan Macmillan give it the thumbs up ... and given they recently treated her to a champagne and lobster dinner you don’t need a crystal ball to guess the outcome.

“My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding has done me some favours, no doubt about it,” says Eva. “There’s a lot of interest in gypsy folk these days even though a lot of the stuff out there doesn’t get it right.

“It’s often written by outsiders, not proper Romanies. And those people on the telly, they’re not proper Romanies either. Irish travellers mostly. That’s why their girls haven’t been taught a trade, not like our’s are, they just clean the place and wait to get wed rather than make a living - or elope like we did!

“They have taken to some of our ways but it’s nothing like our culture. Our roots go way back centuries - people have their theories, India say some, and some of our words are the same in Sanskrit, and others think Persia, but no-one really knows for sure because this was not a literate race, hardly anything was written down. I don’t really consider I come from anywhere but where I am at any time - and I think that’s why I used to love the travelling.

“And that’s part of our magic and mystique to this day, I think. People are fascinated by us. They always want to know more.

“The name gypsy comes from how they used to think we came from Egypt. That’s why the spelling should be gypsy, not gipsy, as some gadje, or gorger, non-Romany, spell it. It’s an insult.

“And that’s part of the reason I’ve written this book, to get it right, to tell like it is, or was. I started writing it at 20, a bit like a diary of our way of life.”

Eva’s second book will focus on her continuing story, her formative years in Blackpool, but home is Brighton, where life is kushti, good. “I like Blackpool but I love Brighton.”

At 71, Eva’s earliest memories are of grandmother Alice’s horse drawn caravan, or vardo, painted deep red, elaborately picked out in gold leaf, lined with carved wood, mirrors, cut glass lamps, and the fine china once a Romany woman’s most prized possession, carefully packed away for each journey on the open road.

Eva was one of the last generation to follow a traditionally Romany life, travelling the roads of Norfolk and the Lincolnshire fens, flatlands (like the Fylde) ideally suited to horsepower. She writes, nostalgically, of food caught or snared for the pot, rabbit, game birds, hedgehogs. It’s a life in soft focus, rosy hued round the edges.

Eva has little truck with gypsy, Rom, or traveller politics, the quest for stopping places or official sites, the “gadje-fication” of Appleby, the attacks on gypsy children in other countries, the deaths of up to 500,000 in the Nazi concentrations camps, the land disputes, indeed the issues we have seen on our own doorstep, or which lead Blackpool Council to gate off Europe’s largest car park each Christmas, rather than see travellers “invade” for the festive season. “It’s all open to abuse,” says Eva. “Proper Romanies behave themselves. Or used to.”

She’s one of the great matriarchs of one of Britain’s best known gypsy clans, Petulengro the name adopted by branches of the family for their professional lives as fortune tellers along the Golden Mile, at North Pier and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, but also as internationally acclaimed accordionists who have won countless awards. Younger members of the family, part schooled at home, and pretty well settled at Marton, have also done well in non-Rom work, in banking and other fields. “The Petulengros have always aimed high,” concludes Eva. “They’re lookers too, beautiful, but more importantly, they have soul. I’m extremely proud of them.”

* The Girl In The Painted Caravan, by Eva Petulengro, Pan Macmillan, £6.99