Depending on whom you ask, Maggie Smith-Bendell is a grandmother from hell or a tireless campaigner for Gypsy rights. For the past decade, this feisty, self-taught 68-yer-old Romany grandmother has been helping Gypsy families securing private land - sometimes by stealth - and advising legislators on planning issues.
Now, “the grandmother of land grab” has written a beautiful memoir to “try to explain to house-dwellers who we are and how we live.” She also wants to record a way of life that has more or less vanished. “I didn't want my father's memory and the era of the wagon and horses and our ancient ways to die out,” says Maggie, who was born on the edge of a pea field near Bridgwater in Somerset in 1941.
I've found her book fascinating because it vividly describes the transition from the early decades of the twentieth century, when Gypsies were still able to live according to their own rhythms and follow seasonal work, through to the period when agriculture changed and councils began to clamp down on Gypsies who stopped on the roadside or common land, and finally to the present situation where Gypsies try to buy their own land on which to live outside the restrictions of council-run sites.
“So much of our way of life is over,” she told me when I went to interview her in Somerset a few weeks ago. “I miss being on the move, the rhythm of our horses' feet and the comfort of our wagon, or running alongside it with our little Jack Russell rabbiters. Summer or winter, we would wake up on a morning and fall out of the wagon to sit beside a good, hot fire. That fire was the centre of our lives.
“That's part of my hope for the families I get planning for. On a private site, we can return to our traditions, for to have an outside fire to cook upon and sit around is forbidden on authorised council sites as a hazard. If you sing and dance on a council site, you're likely to get your marching order for making noise; if you bring a horse back to the site you're causing a nuisance to others.”
I wrote a piece on Maggie for the Guardian (published last Saturday). Read it here.
Our Forgotten Years: A Gypsy Woman's Life on the Road by Maggie Smith-Bendell is published by University of Hertfordshire Press, £8.99. To order a copy for £8.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846