Elvis: in the ghetto, but not a Gypsy

A magazine for British school students on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history is packed with cant and misinformation.

David Altheer

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Even the most bored British schoolchildren might be distracted from gazing out of the classroom window this month by a little magazine that may be placed in their classroom. It’s a colourful product but its looks won’t be all that strikes them. It will be the surprising information the magazine provides on several legendary performers. Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Michael Caine… they were all Gypsy.

The magazine has been produced as part of an enterprise called Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month to help these minorities to take pride in their history during June. Inspired by the Black History Month concept imported to the UK from the US just over 20 years ago, the Gypsy version was dreamt up early this year by teachers and social workers who seem to think that their ‘clients’ need their consciousness raised. The month’s other aim, to explain their place in Britain to the mainstream population, is more important because it is undeniably true that most Britons have only the haziest of ideas about Gypsies and Irish Travellers, often conflating the two or, worse, confusing them with those would-be Romanies, the new-age ‘travellers’.

So what’s this about Elvis and the other celebrities? Well, the magazine’s Hall of Fame page states that El’s ancestors were Sinti, German Gypsies, who emigrated to America early in the eighteenth century. And his mother Gladys’s surname was Smith, which in the logic of the magazine makes her one of the many British Romanies who use that surname, overlooking the fact that it is also one of the most common names in the UK. Perhaps El had some Romany way up in the farthest branches of his family tree. But so does the London author Louise Doughty, who is also in the Hall of Fame, and who, when I was working with her on a Gypsy film festival, insisted that because she had not been raised as a Romanichal (English Gypsy), she did not want to be presented as one in a festival seminar.

Ethnicity is harder to define in individual cases than it seems at first glance. For example, Prince Charles could variously be described as English (the land of his birth), German (the land of his Saxe-Coburg ancestors) or Greek (home of his father, Prince Philip). But being raised in the relevant land or culture is surely a basic requirement – which makes the promiscuous re-labelling of various stars as Gypsies rather ridiculous. Elvis must have agreed with Doughty because he never claimed to be Gypsy.

Unlike Chaplin, who occasionally spouted dreadful fibs about his family. In 1925, he told the New York magazine Collier’s that he had made ‘a thrilling discovery’: Romany blood ran through his veins, he had ‘discovered’ a Gypsy grandparent. Charles Spencer Chaplin’s dark, curly hair and distinctive features had caused speculation about his looks, one conclusion being that he was of Jewish origin, as his surname might indicate. At times, according to Joyce Milton’s excellent analysis of the origins question in Tramp: the Life of Charlie Chaplin, the star went along with this ‘Jewishness’; at other times he described his maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Hill, as Romany or half-Romany, confusing her, says Milton, with his paternal grandmother, Ellen Smith Chaplin, and going on to claim that he had inherited further Gypsy status from other members of his family. But they were not blood relatives.

Rita Hayworth, originally Margarita Carmen Cansino, has long been claimed by Gypsy supporters, who thought, presumably, that because her father, Eduardo Cansino, was a Spanish dancer, he must have been a flamenco Gypsy. Not so; he was a Jewish Spaniard.

As for Michael Caine, he was born Maurice Micklewhite to a Billingsgate fishmonger and a charwoman, not typical Gypsy occupations.

The Gypsy-month magazine adds some cant:

  • ‘1570s – First records of the Kalé Gypsies in Wales.’ Welsh historical documents refer to ‘Sypsions’, never to Kalé;
  • Parish records from the early 1500s show that Irish Travellers were ‘already living in England’. References to ‘tynkers’ exist from the 1100s but no mention is made of Irish beginnings (let alone of ‘travellers of Irish heritage’, as their supporters now want them to be known);
  • Fishtail lettering ‘was invented by showmen and travellers’. What, by a people who rarely got the chance to learn to write?;
  • Django Reinhardt – who was Gypsy – introduced ‘swing jazz’ to the world. And there was I thinking it was Benny Goodman and other 1930s American bandleaders;
  • Eric Cantona was of the Manouche group of Gypsies. No; the former French football star was from a Marseilles family who were Calo Gypsies.

This is some of the misinformation being disseminated to schools and public libraries in 23,000 copies of the magazine and on the Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month website. The teachers behind the Gypsy month, the subject of a congratulatory early-day motion by the sympathetic MP Julie Morgan, should have exercised some quality control because for answers on Gypsy and traveller questions their month’s magazine gets a very low mark. Which is just what the teachers received: 30 years since the first traveller education service was set up, a government report noted that just 3.8 per cent of ‘Gypsy/Roma’ children were achieving five ‘good’ GCSEs passes at age 16 (1). They were also often truant or excluded for violence. Many failed to attend classroom tests and external examinations, let alone sit them.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families and a provincial education authority between them coughed up about £70,000 for the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month. They might like to think carefully about some of the work of teachers whose pupils are still emerging into adulthood, if not entirely illiterate, then barely able to read and write.

David Altheer was the progenitor of the 2006 London International Gypsy Film Festival.

Previously on spiked

From Black History Month to environmentalism, Frank Furedi argued that moral campaigners have corrupted the curriculum. Neil Davenport argued that you can’t tackle divisions by promoting diversity. Mick Hume asked if we are all racists now? Josie Appleton said cultural diversity policy substitutes political goals for artistic standards. In an extract from Kenan Malik‘s Strange Fruit, he looked at the naturalisation of racial feelings. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Boys struggling to read and write in English, The Times (London), 24 November 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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