I cried in Caffé Nero today, as I finished off the brutally honest and stomach-churningly moving Gypsy Boy. I dabbed my eyes with the scratchy brown paper tissue, and genuinely felt a bit exhausted after reading the final chapters of Mikey Walsh’s turbulent tale.
Gypsy Boy is Walsh’s heartfelt struggle against the confines of his Romany gypsy family. It is a shocking autobiographical account of the violence, rebellion and sexual discoveries of Walsh’s upbringing. Amazingly, the author avoids a self-pitying or indulgent tone, despite the repeated instances of his being verbally, physically and sexually abused.
The descriptions of violence are so brutal that there were moments when I thought I’d have to give up on the whole thing. I winced and persevered, soon realising that what occasionally seemed like gratuitous accounts of bloodied noses and split lips were in fact essential to Mikey’s existence in the Gypsy world.
The bizarre anecdotes of gypsy life are all true – his father pummelling him with an ice cold hose every morning, kids smoking aged ten and driving at thirteen, conning people out of vast sums of money, women being deemed spinsters if they are single after the age of 20 (although, having seen Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, I already knew that). All true.
Walsh tries hard to understand and explain the atrocities, and to prevent readers from being prejudiced against all Roma, but the hypocrisies of gypsy culture leave one with a bitter taste. But don’t just dismiss this tale as a ‘misery memoir’. Amidst the patriarchal violence and abuse, there lie many moments of hilarity and genuine love between Mikey and his mother. Walsh’s wit and optimistic outlook, even at the bleakest times, keep the reader chugging along.
The insight into gypsy culture is particularly appealing for the culturally curious (or downright nosy) types. Caravan interiors are described in detail (think pink velour fabric and mirrored walls), we learn a bit of Roman dialect (‘chavi’ means child, ‘cushti’ means comfortable), and discover how intensely the gypsy people abhor the British school and legal systems.
There is even a sequel to sink your teeth into once the tearstains have faded. Gypsy Boy On The Run tells Mikey’s story once he is a fully-fledged adult. It might just be me, but I think I hear the faint sound of Hollywood calling to turn this gypsy boy’s life into a movie franchise. Watch this space.
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