Large and Rolling

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • The Scholar Gypsy: The Quest for a Family Secret by Anthony Sampson
    Murray, 229 pp, £16.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5708 9

Anthony Sampson begins and ends his book with an account of his grandfather’s funeral, held, as requested in his will, at the top of a Welsh mountain, Foel Goch. Among the mourners were Gypsy harpers and fiddlers, scholars, civic officials and ‘the painter Mr Augustus John’. ‘Hundreds of spectators,’ it was reported, ‘waited for the coming of the mortal remains of Dr John Sampson, the well-known philologist and librarian of Liverpool University.’ As a specialist in Romani he had been known – not only to the Gypsies – as the Rai, the Master. Indeed the Daily Express (this was in 1931) began its obituary with a quotation from Browning’s ‘Grammarian’s Funeral’: ‘Leave him still loftier than the world suspects.’ Afterwards there was a tremendous blow-out, complete with wines and cigars, at the White Lion in Cerrigydrudion. But Michael Sampson, Anthony’s father, who had scattered the ashes nine times over the mountain, looks cold and ill at ease in the faded press photographs. And the Rai’s widow was not present.

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