Happiness in Simplicity

A LITTLE CARAVANNING HISTORY

At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the young artist Frances Jennings became a semi-invalid and was advised by her doctor to spend as much time as she could in the open air.  Being a Victorian lady at loose ends, the obvious choice was to take to the open road.  Her simple rig and a good spirit served her well.  As described by J. Harris Stone:

She is extremely delicate, partially paralysed, and her doctor told her that she should practically live in the open air. Being of an active and practical mind she set to work to see how she could, within her means, carry out the drastic requirements of her medical adviser.  She joined the Caravan Club, and all the assistance, in the way of pitches and introductions, was of course afforded her. Her desire was to take to the road and live altogether in the open air in rural parts of the country. Her cart—it can scarcely be called a caravan—she describes as “strange and happy-looking.”  It is four-wheeled, rather like a trolley, and painted bright blue, with a yellow oilskin hood—something like a brewer’s dray in shape.

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Beauty in a caravan is in the eye of the beholder.

“I carry,” she tells me in one of her letters from a pitch in a most out-of-the-way spot in rural Gloucestershire, ”a hamper of food, and one of soap and brushes and tools, etc., and a box of books, a small faggot of wood for emergencies and a gallon can of water.  I have a covering of sheepskins with the wool on them, and a sack of oats, bran, chaff, hay, or something to feed my little ass upon.  Also I keep in a sack the donkey’s brush and comb and chain, etc., and the harness when not in use.  I do not generally travel after dark, but if overtaken by dusk I hang out my candle lantern.”

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Cooking over a campfire with the ubiquitous fire hook.

“…I build immense fires. That constitutes a great happiness to me. I have a kettle-hook and hanging pot, and I buy food in the villages.  At the farms I find a plentiful supply of milk, fruit, honey, nuts and fresh vegetables. I build the fire just by the cart, with the donkey near at hand.”

Described in her first year on the road, she “sleeps in the covered cart, and she carries a few straight rods with her to drive into the ground on her pitch, on which she hangs squares of sacking across as a screen to keep off the gaze of curious watchers when she wants to sit by the fire ” and dream, and not be the object of their gaze.”

In her own Walden experience, things were not always easy or perfect.  “I find great excitement, in the winter, in hearing the storms raving around me in the black of night… I feel my present outfit and way of getting along is very far short of perfection!… at present it is rather by the skin of my teeth that I manage to exist amid the elements of wind and rain and cold and space.”

campfireandpipeSpeaking of her time with the more traditional travellers, she says: “They have spoken like poets, worn silver rings on their copper hands and rosy beads around their necks; and their babies have round little twigs of hazel-nuts in their red hands.  And perhaps the roof of their cart has been on the sea—the sail of a ship.”

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Jobs, Work, and Taking Control of Possessions (an updated ramble)

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Comfort in the parlour. Artist, John Edward Soden, ca.1836–1897.

Comfort in the Parlour. Artist, John Edward Soden, ca.1836–1897.

Possessions don’t make us happy!  Situations do.

Possessions, desire, covetousness, craving, yearning, lust; these forces drive humanity. Somehow each generation of moral thinkers know these things are ultimately wrong and look for something deeper.  With virtually every major religion and most schools of moral philosophy reiterating this through the millennia it’s surprising any of us even pretend to a higher conscience in the age where consumption is a human’s primary role.

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A Taoist monk wearing a coat made from cast-off scraps of cloth as a sign of his un-attachment.

And yet, each generation produces it’s share of radicals who cling to the hope that we can get more from life by having less. 

At some point, some of us have an epiphany about what is truly important in life.  It’s not the pursuit of money.  Life is short, so if you don’t enjoy what you do from day-to-day, them something needs to change.  Look around.  How many ways are people and companies trying to sell you something you didn’t even know you wanted?  Is it worth selling your soul, one hour at a time?  Not to me.  Not any more.  Like so many people before me, I wasted much of my youth.  Not all of it, but large swaths of time were sold away to an employer for mere money.  Not that giving time to a cause is an evil in itself.  Helping a friend, working with kids, or teaching a skill; all are noble pursuits and are, in a sense, work.  These things just don’t fall into that class of mindless drudgery that makes up most day jobs.

Filling a McMansion with junk is not a road to happiness. It's the road to enslavement.

Filling a McMansion with things you don’t need while struggling to pay the mortgage is not a road to happiness. It’s the road to enslavement.

Even in our hobbies, generally they are just fillers.  Something to be done in our leisure time, and somehow not part of “real life.”  Isn’t this backwards?  Shouldn’t we fill our days with things we love; music, family, reading, writing, wandering, or just plain idling?  We are taught to criticize the idle and there is possibly some logic to it.

At a family or village level, its easy to see how we might resent someone who doesn’t pull their weight; and rightly so, but that doesn’t mean we need to forget to live a satisfying life along the way.

I am often amazed how angry even the most privileged people become when they think someone is getting a handout for free.  Taking this to an extreme, people relish in the schadenfreude*.

I think many of us are that person at some point in our lives, but with  spiritual growth, this petty thinking will be only a phase.

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Finding your  joy.  In this case, a little wine, song, and presumably, camaraderie.

We have, as a society, confused real and honest work, with mindlessly stumbling to a job.  Even with a so-called “good job” most of us have no stake in our employer, other than making sure the check comes regularly.  Choosing to not punch the clock does not make one a slacker.  My friends and acquaintances who choose to live outside this system are the hardest working people I know.

They just don’t sell their lives cheaply for others’ gain.

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Maintaining a garden is work, but providing for yourself and family directly eliminates the constant need for the middle-men.

Taking control of your needs, even a little, alleviates some of the more abstract time demands paid out to someone else by serving yourself directly.  The most negative comment I have heard about doing these things for oneself is “I don’t have enough time!”  Yes, doing things like gardening or making clothes or furniture or tools takes time but at some point it becomes a trade-off.  Is it a bigger waste of time to commute and hour to work each way or spend two hours with the kids in the garden?

For me, there’s no question; and I’m certainly not the first person to reach this conclusion.

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Finding your inner peace.  Dervish, with leopard and a lion, ca 1650.

I think this need for, or as a result of, spiritual awakening is the driving force behind many religious and philosophical movements over many thousands of years.  And, of course, they are all the one true path, religion, paradigm, whatever-you-call-it (leading to division, persecution, strife, and war; some irony, eh?).  Once the epiphany hits, there is realization that the system is not really necessary.  To make it through life, few possessions are truly essential.

Join me on a journey to a better life…

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A well-known photo of the personal effects of Mahatma Gandhi.

“Chase your passion, not your pension.”
— Denis Waitley

*Schadenfreude– the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune; an all-too common evil in humanity.

Campsite Life

Scenes of life on the road and around the campsites.

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October 1951: Mrs Robert Matthew, an MP’s wife, campaigning at a gypsy encampment.

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Kids at the campsite.

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A classic image of Traveller children.

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Modern gypsies (Romany) in their simple accommodation.

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I really love these little bender tents.

Family Life

A fine caravan for a successful traveller.

This is part of a series of images, mostly Romany, Irish, and Scottish Travellers collected from around the internet.  Many of these historic images found on the web are without citation.  When a clear link to a source is found, I try to include it.  If a source is known, please pass it on and I will gladly include it or remove it if necessary.

“The Travelling Tinker” by John Burr

The Travelling Tinker

The Travelling Tinker

A painting by the Scottish artist John Burr (1831-1893).  Tinkers were originally tinsmiths or “tinners”.  One of many itinerant jobs pursued by a class of casual laborers.  These were mostly skilled and specialized crafts like basket making, shoe repair, leather work, and metal work but many poorer workers were migrant farm labor picking hops and tending the market gardens during the peak harvest.  The fellow in the image above appears to be a fairly well-off repairman mending a seam in a pot.  This from a time when new items were a rare purchase.

I love deciphering images like this for the details of domestic life.  Unlike most photos, there is real intention in what the artist chose to include or not in the painting.  The house is clearly a poor one but a freshly killed chicken hangs from a nail on the wall by some dry roots.  A handmade broom leans against the wall next to a basket that has the tradesman’s coat lying across it.  The oldest daughter tends the infant while the mother stands by the laundry basin with a toddler behind.  All the children look on while the novel worker plies his trade in a waistcoat and hobnail walking shoes.

Wandering Minstral

A Wandering Minstral

A Wandering Minstrel

Here is a painting by the Scottish artist John Burr (1831-1893) of an itinerant fiddler playing for a family in a Scottish lane probably trying to make enough money to eat or maybe even receive some food for his entertainment.  I can’t help but think the father looking out has a skeptical look; possibly wondering what this will cost in the end.

Music and storytelling were a very different commodity in an age of widespread illiteracy and 24 hour media.  It’s hard to even imagine a time when all music was handmade and intimate and not an item to be mass marketed.

The World is Your Workshop

In Britain and Ireland, the Romany Gypsys and the Traveller community are often associated with low-skilled work such as scrap dealers, horse traders, musical entertainers, or more nefarious activities outside the societal norms.  However, there were plenty of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen providing goods and services to people around the country.

Below is an image of a couple, working together making footstools outside their vardo while another couple looks on from the comfort of their wagon.

Gypsy carpenters making small and large stools for market. From an early 20th century postcard.  Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

Other Gypsy families were blacksmiths, basket weavers, or similar occupations that could be taken on the road, required little stock or overhead, and could be performed independently or with a minimum of family help.

Gypsy Basket Weavers on Skyros. Source: http://from-hand-to-hand.org/.

There is more to wandering people than the romantic or demonized images we carry.  People are just people after all.

Gypsy Blacksmith. Source.

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Encampment on a pitch somewhere in France, early mid-20th century.

Tents and the Vardo Life; What is a Bender?

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The bender tent provides shelter from the damp while keeping the living space outdoors.

Travellers in Europe and Britain have always been associated with a style tent called a bender.  This comes from the construction technique of cutting saplings and bending them into a dome, elongated dome, or half cylinder shape,  These frameworks were then covered with tarps and made watertight in the temperate damp.  The origins of this design are lost in the mists of time and are believed by archaeologists to be one of the earliest style of recognizable tent structure used by humans.

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This size bender can more than double the living space of a vardo in a matter of minutes.

Even after a certain level of affluence allowed some Romany and other Travelling folk to own living wagons, the bender continued (and continues) to be a way to extend the living space without the need for a lot more gear.

In England, Gypsy women often used their homes for fortune-telling, especially around the Gadjo (non-Gypsy) vacation centers. Image, early 20th century. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

The fact that a tent becomes the subject for a Blackpool post card shows the ongoing fascination with “Gypsy Culture,” especially in the British Isles where Travellers are simultaneously suspect and romanticized.

Fortune Teller

The front or vestibule provides a place to do business in relative privacy. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

If you have family that me be Romany, Traveller, or Fairground folk in Britain or just want to learn more, check out the Romany & Traveller Family History Society at http://rtfhs.org.uk/.

A Romany Family in Scotland

Near Boglehill in Midlothian, Scotland, n.d. late 19th century. Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

I really like everything about the image above.  We see three very different types of wagon-home-conveyances and a family, wearing clothing of the time.  Travellers on the margin of mainstream society have been shunned, persecuted, and culturally dismissed while at the same time romanticized for their freedom and seeming lack of attachment to a more mundane life.  I am glad to see a revitalization and pride from reconnecting with family roots.

Legal Documents.

People who have lived “off-grid” so to speak often have few documents or any official standing, making family histories more difficult to trace.  Hospital records, cemetery documents, or government permits, such as the Pedlar’s Certificate above, are the only way for many to trace their ancestry.

 

Diaper Family Portrait.

Fortunately, there is a concerted effort in Britain by the Romany & Traveller Family History Society (RTFHS) to create a clearinghouse for descendants of those often overlooked by the mainstream.

About the RTFHS:  Back in the early 1990s, a group of keen family historians with British Gypsy ancestors first met at a Gypsy family history conference organised by the historian and author, the late David Smith. Until that moment we’d all thought that we were pretty much alone in trying to trace our travelling ancestors and that there was no-one out there to learn from or share our experiences, trials and tribulations with.