This is an apparently true account of one man’s changing relationship with gypsies. Mike Woodhouse was a successful man. He was also someone who was far from risk averse, happy to change direction and try new things and make a success of it. An engineer by trade, he had tried his luck at running a nightclub, then when that got too much, threw it in and took a job as a welder before working his way up an engineering company. While there he had his first run in with the Smiths, a troublesome gypsy clan involved in criminality. Having disturbed a robbery at the company, Mike gave chase and ran them off the road. This sparked a feud that would follow him.

Mike moved away and started his own business, but the Smiths were never far away. A passionate rugby man and unafraid to use his fists, he was not the kind of guy to back down. He also could call on other like-minded and equally capable people. This was most obvious when local farmers asked him to help drive gypsies from their land, something he engaged in with gusto. But Mike met Rhoda, a Romany gypsy, and he fell in love. This was the start of a change in his attitudes, and while still despising the Smiths, he learnt that gypsy culture is far richer than he had dreamed. This change in attitude was solidified when through a betrayal he ended up losing everything and having no choice but to move in to a trailer with Rhoda, in effect living the gypsy life himself.

The Gypsy Code is an interesting book, it’s very well written and compelling. Gypsies and travellers are often a source of contention for middle England, their caravans and trailers unwelcome in towns and villages throughout Britain. Their communities suffer discrimination and exclusion; some are involved in crime and they are disproportionately reflected in the prison population. This book doesn’t shy away from the criminality associated with some members of the community, the Smiths being a thoroughly antisocial family, but equally in the latter part of the narrative the author shows how all-too-often the whole population is tarnished with the same brush.

Unfortunately, he’s not consistent, however. Towards the end of the book, Mike runs a stall at a traveller fare and relates how the Romany gypsies were well dressed, polite and proud, the Irish travellers in tracksuits and troublesome. Is this really the case? All Romanies are upstanding members of the community while all Irish travellers are criminals? Is he not doing what others do to the community as a whole and if he had fallen in love with an Irish traveller instead of a Romany, would he not perceive things the other way around? That said, this is a biography, not a journalistic account or academic study of gypsy/traveller life, and that was obviously how he perceived things at the time.

Without giving away spoilers, Mike’s earlier activity of fighting with gypsies and running them off a farmer’s land comes back to haunt him, and the book ends on a bitter sweet note. The Gypsy Code is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Well written and moving, it will be interesting to read what the author writes next.

James Pierson 4/4

The Gypsy Code by Mike Woodhouse
Michael Joseph 9780241357248 pbk Apr 2019