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Gypsy Joe by Joe Smith

‘The mental age of the average adult Gypsy is thought to be about that of a child of ten. Gypsies have never accomplished anything of great significance in writing, painting, musical composition, science or social organisation. Quarrelsome, quick to anger or laughter, they are unthinkingly but not deliberately cruel. Loving bright colours, they are ostentatious and boastful, but lack bravery.’
Encyclopaedia Britannica 1954

Joe Smith was born in West London in 1971 into a gypsy family. His formative years were spent travelling around England in a caravan while his father dealt in scrap metal and his mother sold lucky heather. Times were hard but Joe relished the outdoor life and soaked up his Romany culture and family history and characters. One such character was his grandfather Rymer who had graduated from nightly punishing bouts in the fairground boxing booths of Britain to fighting professionally at a high level. Joe was never happier than when sitting with the adults around a campfire as they told stories from the past about the boxing booths, the hop-picking, the horse fairs and the rich and colourful relatives from generations of Smiths. Little he did know it, but he was absorbing the memories of the last generation of gypsies in Britain to live the true Romany lifestyle.

His elders had enjoyed the freedom to travel around the countryside and were generally welcomed by farmers and landowners who needed no-hassle, casual labour. New laws in the 1960s made it very difficult for gypsies to stop and pressure was applied for them to settle. However, when sites were proposed or constructed local residents often objected and this led to a hardening of attitudes between gypsies and the rest of society. Centuries-old horse fairs were banned, door-to-door peddling of goods frowned upon and other ways of earning a living choked by bureaucratic red tape. No longer was it permissible for gypsies to live quietly under the radar.

 

As a seven-year-old Joe was encouraged by his grandfather Rymer to reject a family tradition of bare-knuckle fighting and boxing and take up the unlikely sport of golf. Rymer told him that the brave man is the one that walks away from a fight and that golf would be the way to change the course of his life. The boy quickly displayed a natural gift and prowess way beyond his years. When Rymer suffered a heart attack and died on the golf course, a distraught Joe promised his grandfather he would fulfil his dream and one day become a professional golfer.
 
Equally as important in young Joe’s development was a man called Jim Needle who came on to the caravan site and taught the boy to read and write, something for which Joe is eternally grateful and without whom his book would never have been written. This ability and his golfing talent turned Joe into an outgoing boy and youth effortlessly bridging the gap that often existed between gypsies and gorgia. Golfing cups and trophies followed, culminating in victory at the London Junior Open at just 15, when he was presented with his award by Denis Thatcher and became the subject of a TV mini-documentary. Joe’s future seemed mapped out for him and it was one he eagerly anticipated. Not everyone was so happy about the gypsy boy’s success though and some charges were laid against him at his beloved golf club where he was champion and he was asked to leave.
 
The effect on Joe’s self-esteem, confidence and game were devastating and as anger burned inside him he fell into a life of bare-knuckle fighting and later petty crime. His role models were now thugs and crooks, no longer sportsmen. Adept with his fists, Joe soon became known as an up-and-coming bare-knuckle man and he found his muscle was in demand for hire. A thin line between favours, debt collection and extortion was drawn. Heavy drinking was punctuated by explosions of pointless violence. Joe spiralled downwards at an alarming speed. Only when he was facing a lengthy prison sentence or even a bullet in the head did he reflect on the perilous course his life was now taking. Through the fog of alcohol and living alone while being bailed pending a serious trial he realised that his underworld ‘friends’ were using him for money or muscle, and often both. He could see that the ‘diamond geezers’ were very often the exact opposite. When he was acquitted in court he realised that he had a chance, probably his last, to alter the course of his life.
 
Remembering his promise to Rymer and reflecting on the love of his parents he spurned the underworld and returned to his golf where he tortuously worked on increasing his confidence and reducing his handicap. Slowly but surely he rediscovered his gift and finally turned professional. Soon he competed at the highest levels, narrowly missing qualifying for the British Open on three occasions and playing alongside some of the greats of the game. Separately he decided to fight legitimately too, and went into training and worked his way rapidly through the Unlicensed Heavyweight ranks to become London champion.
 
Gypsy Joe is not only a story of redemption but an uplifting account of a young man determined to realise his dreams regardless of his background. Joe examines how the gypsy lifestyle of roaming the country and living off the land, free from pin numbers and P45s, barcodes and birth certificates, profiling and peeping surveillance, flies in the face of modern government, at the same time giving an honest view on the deep-seated prejudices that exist between gypsies and non-gypsies.