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.

Soon afterwards an Aunt Mary, never met before, came to visit the family, ‘a big, square-jawed schoolteacher with pebble glasses’, but kindly. They took to her. What relation was she, exactly? That would be explained to them when they were older. Anthony Sampson was five at the time of the funeral on Foel Goch. He remembers his grandfather as a magical old man who played with them in the garden. ‘But after his death his spirit seemed to hover as a shadow over both my parents.’ Now, having reached his seventies and ‘feeling more detached from the contemporary world’, Sampson confronts the Rai.

John Sampson was brought up in Liverpool, without advantages. At the age of 14 he had to leave school to help his widowed mother and younger brothers. He was apprenticed to a lithographer, but studied philology and phonetics at night-school ‘with all the energy and passion for scholarship’, Sampson says, ‘that marked the Victorian autodidacts’. It might be thought that to a born classifier all subjects – or all subjects that need putting in order – would be much alike, and the drier the better. But the Rai, on the contrary, became obsessed with the Gypsy population who appeared and disappeared on the open heathland around Liverpool. He never forgot ‘the early enthusiasm with which I would hail the thin smoke of a Gypsy wagon curling among the trees in some country lane, or the delight I experienced when “drawing out” some venerable Gypsy’. The Gypsy had to be venerable because the Rai had set himself to reconstruct the ‘deep Romani’ which lay behind the broken modern dialects, and could be found only among the old and silent.

George Borrow was the great inspiration. (Sampson is surely wrong, however, in saying that Borrow, who spent five tough and dangerous years as an agent of the Bible Society in Russia and Spain, ‘relived the role of the Scholar Gypsy’.) The Rai was nothing like such a strange character as Borrow, and, arriving among the tent-folk forty years later, had things easier. He met the Boswell family (one of whom had tried to poison Borrow for stealing their language) but came to no harm. Again, it has been suggested, on rather shaky evidence, that Borrow was a eunuch and that, had he not been, the tribes would never have allowed him to make friends among their women. The Rai, as was to become clear, was not a eunuch, but was ‘not’, he said, ‘credited with any baser motives than philological interests. On the whole,’ he added, ‘I felt rather flattered.’

He was one of the growing circle of English Romanophiles, and Sampson shows that these Gypsy-fanciers and lore-collectors were a tribe as eccentric, exclusive and self-regarding as any other. In addition to the usual scholarly disputes – the Rai fell out with his friend Bernard Gilliat-Smith over the aspirated c in Balkan Romani – there was rivalry over gaining the Gypsies’ confidence and in the open-air excitement of the chase. The tent-dwellers appeared without warning at old camping-grounds and new, and disappeared like the shadows of night itself. In 1906 an immigrant band were sighted in Blackpool. On another occasion Liverpool Central Station was suddenly thronged with Hungarian Gypsies, who were redirected by the police to Aintree. To the Romanophiles the history of these people was to be found in their language, and the great aim was to preserve Romani in written form. The philological interest, as Sampson says, was later ‘overtaken by the more urgent political concern with their persecution and migration from Eastern Europe’. But when the Rai first went to their firesides with his notebook the scene had not yet begun to cloud.

It was through his contacts with the newly founded Gypsy Lore Society that John Sampson got the job that suited him exactly. He was introduced, or introduced himself, to an authority on Celtic languages, Kuno Meyer, who recommended that this unqualified but impressive young man be made the first librarian of the new University College. At this point Sampson relates his grandfather’s life to the history of Victorian Liverpool and its university, certain of its mission, financed by go-ahead ship-builders and soap-boilers, and housed in an old lunatic asylum.

Having fallen extravagantly in love with a young woman, Margaret Sprunt, the new librarian married on his tiny salary, but soon began to spend his vacations away from his wife, in North Wales, ‘whose wild splendours’, Sampson points out, ‘the railway had brought much closer to Liverpool’. In the spring of 1901 the 23-year-old Augustus John, ear-ringed and triumphantly bearded, came to teach at the Art College, and the two men began to rove around together and were made welcome in the tents.

Already in the Rai’s mind was the great dictionary of Welsh Romani with its illustrations, proverbs and ‘sense-riddles’ which would occupy him for the next twenty-five years. And here he was luckier than most men: his university post, his own field of linguistic studies and his sexual impulses, which might have obstructed each other, all worked together for him. With the 20th century, women were admitted to Liverpool University and many of them were students of literature and philology. Bald, stout and bespectacled as the Rai now was, he was able to cast a spell over these hard-working New Women, whom he rapidly recruited as his unpaid assistants. None of them ever gave him away, although rumours of his ‘polygamy’ circulated, and his job, on which so much depended, must often have been at risk. One of his students, the brilliant Dora Yates, continued his work after his death, and almost until her own. As a trained and dedicated librarian, however, she carefully preserved not only his professional papers and hers, but the dirty verses he wrote for her and her equally dirty replies. All were filed and officially stamped for the archives. They were there when Anthony Sampson went, in the course of his quest, to Liverpool University.

Sampson had long ago realised that the Aunty Mary who had come to visit after the funeral must be his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter and the centre of his engrossing story is his search for Aunt Mary’s mother. She was not, it turned out, Dora Yates, but another of the Rai’s assistants, Gladys Imlach, whom he had seduced when he was 44 and she was 25. Gladys and her daughter could never of course hope to see much of the Rai – except for hole-and-corner holidays – but Mary was completely devoted to her father.

When George Borrow was editing Celebrated Trials he was struck by a sentence from the evidence of Henry Simms, criminal: ‘So I went with them to a music booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin, and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand.’ Borrow is surely right about the conciseness and clarity of this, and it might have been a model for Sampson’s calmly written but always absorbing book. There are a number of tales to tell: the increasing bitterness of the Rai’s neglected wife, the loyalty of Dora Yates, his own father’s repressed silences, Aunt Mary. Sampson began his search in her tiny, ice-cold flat in Edinburgh; she was 84, and had made her own life as a teacher of classics.

She had not been allowed to go to the Rai’s funeral, she explained, because the others did not know she existed. ‘Wasn’t that a very hard time for you?’I asked.

   ‘It was one of those times you have to go through.’ She spoke calmly, without a quiver of self-pity, but would be drawn no further. ‘I’ve talked enough.’

‘It is not my grandmother who needs to be forgiven, it is the times she lived in,’ Margaret Forster writes at the end of Hidden Lives, in which she fails to solve her own family mystery. Sampson, on the other hand, has come face to face with a grandfather who does in truth need to be forgiven. The great dictionary, representing a lifetime spent on a language spoken by only a handful of people, was a memorial to unworldly scholarship, with perhaps a Gypsy-like contempt for material wealth. A plaque in Liverpool University commemorates him as its first librarian. In his lifetime he had delighted a number of people with his sheer size and geniality: ‘the large and rolling Rai’, as Augustus John described him, ‘like a ship at sea, with his battered hat at a commanding angle, his cutty alight, his chin thrust out, and his powerful legs moving rhythmically’. But he left behind him a humiliated and broken-hearted wife who had kept quiet in the interests of his career, a bastard daughter who could never be acknowledged and a family with whom he had been strict enough, but ‘from whom he had escaped in a cloud of Gypsy smoke into another life and a bigamous society’. Mightn’t it be said that where his conduct as a human being was concerned, in his deepest relationships with men and women and his own children, the Rai was a regular old hokkeny? But Sampson’s object was to search and find, not to pass judgment. He concludes that the Rai left his descendants a reminder worth having ‘that life can never be contained within the four walls of middle-class conventions, and that “the other society” can never be ignored’.