Earlier this year, at Lynn's request, I wrote a very condensed story of Jim's life for the magazine, and quite a few of you have told me how much you enjoyed reading it. Shortened as it was it still ran to two editions of the magazine and I mentioned at the time that some stories would have to wait for another time. In the expectation that there may be few other contributions in this holiday period I thought that now might be a good time for one of them.
You may remember that I told you how Jim became self-employed, combining motor repairs, garden machinery maintenance and chimney sweeping with part-time driving and delivery jobs. He was a driver-bearer for a local firm of Funeral Directors in Littlehampton and this, coupled with his chimney sweeping business, led to one of his most memorable experiences.
Called to sweep the chimneys of a flat on Littlehampton seafront he was directed into a room where he was confronted by an old gentleman in bed. At the foot of the bed was a large wooden chest and, seeing Jim's curiosity, the old man invited him to open it and look inside. He discovered that it contained a set of very colourful clothes in gypsy style. "Them's my going-away clothes, boy," said the old gentleman; his name was Mr Adam Smith. Jim made the appropriate appreciative remarks and thought little more about it until some months later when he had a call from the firm of Funeral Directors for whom he drove, to undertake a special assignment. With a team of bearers he was to start very early in the morning, call at this self-same flat on the seafront, load the coffin into the hearse and then drive to Viney Hill in the Forest of Dean. There they would be met at the top of the hill before the village and would stop and unload the coffin. No further details were forthcoming, apart from instructions not to stop at any roadside establishments for refreshment but to take sufficient food with them for the day, and so they set off as instructed wondering what it was all about.
The road to the Forest of Dean was rather longer in those days but they eventually arrived at Viney Hill in mid-afternoon and there, at the top of the hill, was a group of people in rather splendid costumes complete with horse and cart. The coffin was duly transferred to the horse and cart and then, much to the surprise of Jim and his companions, the lid was taken off the coffin and the body, clad in full gypsy finery, was raised to a sitting position. It was then that Jim recognised the old gentleman from the flat and the 'going-away clothes' that he had seen in the wooden chest. It was Mr Adam Smith alias Gypsy Petulengro - the King of the Romanies. So Gypsy Petulengro travelled down the hill, with his family sitting around him on the cart, to his final resting place in a piece of common land that had been incorporated into the churchyard when it was extended. The Common was bordered in part by the churchyard and it was believed that this was the only piece of consecrated common land in the country. To Petulengro, his Romany heritage and his Christian faith were equally important.
After the burial service the coffin was lowered into the grave with Gypsy Petulengro still sitting upright and then the celebrations began with much feasting and drinking. Members of the tribe took it in turns to sit round the edge of the grave, their feet dangling in it, to ward off the evil spirits while the rest sang and danced the night away. In the morning Gypsy Petulengro was slid back down into his coffin and the lid fastened down. The grave was filled in and finally his Vardo was burned on the Common. Jim was greatly impressed by the whole ceremony, finding the joyful celebrations far more meaningful than the solemn, mournful funerals he normally attended.
For those of you who attended Jim's funeral but were unable to follow to the internment, Jim made the last part of his final journey by horse and cart whilst the family walked behind. He had always been very insistent on this and had even included it in his Will, making it very clear that he did not want a fancy horse-drawn hearse, just a plain farm cart as befitted a Sussex lad who, somewhere along the line, had a bit of Romany blood in his veins. It gave me a lot of trouble to find one but we managed in the end and, in case you were wondering, no - we did not sit Jim up in his coffin and he went dressed, not in Romany clothes, but in cassock and cotta as a faithful member of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary.
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