Books: A foot in both camps

THE SCHOLAR GYPSY: The Quest for a Family Secret by Anthony Sampson, John Murray pounds 16
There are two quests here. One is the scholar gypsy's, who, inspired by George Borrow, divided his life between a respectable academic career as the first librarian of Liverpool University, and an adventurous search among the gypsies of North Wales for the pure, or "deep", Romani language. The second is his grandson's discovery of the impure, or deep, story of his grandfather's secret life. Both make a vivid, intriguing, curious narrative.

Anthony Sampson was born in 1926; his grandfather, John Sampson, died in 1931. But it wasn't until the 1990s that the writer began to track the story, through his family's reluctant disclosures, through an unexamined archive at Liverpool University, and through establishing contacts with the residue of the old Romanies. He pieced together a biography by no means altogether pleasant or admirable, but with its own historical value.

John Sampson's funeral took place on a mountain looking across to Snowdonia, near the village of Llangwm. A procession of gypsies, with "harps, fiddles, clarinet and dulcimer", followed by family, academics and reporters, carried the ashes up the mountain and scattered them, while Sampson's friend Augustus John recited a pagan tribute and some of Sampson's Romani verses. "Ashes to ashes" was intoned in Romani, gypsy tunes were played, and then they all went down for an enormous booze-up at the White Lion Inn in Cerig- y-Dradion, where George Burrow had once stayed. It was an appropriate tribute to the "Romany Rai" - the gypsy scholar - of his day.

Sampson grew up in poverty in the tough world of Victorian Liverpool, was apprenticed to an engraver, and at 22 became a printer. From early on he showed an extraordinary talent for philology. And he fell, very young, under the spell of George Borrow and the gypsies, still in the 1880s "part of an untamed, semi-rural world on the margins of an industrialised society", still retaining the allure that inspired Merimee's Carmen or Matthew Arnold's "The Scholar-Gypsy". Sampson made his name as a philologist with a youthful learned article on "Tinkers and their Talk" for the Gypsy Lore Society, and on the strength of this, the German Celtic expert at Liverpool, Kuno Mayer (whom Sampson later dropped because of his support for Germany in the war), got him his job at the university library in 1892.

Sampson's forays into the gypsy communities of Liverpool and North Wales at the turn of the century are vividly described: roughing it in the company of "Manni Connor, Double Devil and the Shah", "three evil-looking knife- grinders"; coming upon a Slovakian bear-leader and his bears on Wavertree Fields, or mixing in Birkenhead with a group of "Romanian coppersmiths, equipped with huge silver tea-urns, and with their own specially baked bread ... who could recite folk tales entirely from memory". With his fellow gypsy-lover Augustus John (who came to teach art in Liverpool in 1901) and other like-minded Romanists, Sampson had some wild times. Visits by John to Sampson's remote cottage in North Wales led to nights of drinking, singing, fighting and "dissipation". But, whatever other passionate pursuits were going on, the "passionate pursuit of the gypsy language" was the main idea.

Though Sampson became known as a scholar for a scrupulous edition of Blake's lyrical poems, his great work was a dictionary of Romani, which took him 30 years to complete. The gypsy language presented an exceptional challenge for philologists, because it had been preserved through speech but not through writing. And the gypsies were at pains to "guard their languages as a code indecipherable by police or magistrates". When Sampson began to study it, Romani was in decay. His discovery of the Wood family, who spoke "the ancient Romani tongue", was an amazing piece of luck, "like finding a tribe of organ-grinders who among themselves spoke Ciceronian Latin".

The scholar gypsy felt torn between conventional university life and his Romani wanderings. The contrast is summed up by two dinners given for Sampson in 1909, one at Magdalen College, Oxford, to mark his Honorary Doctorate, with Romani names for each course of salmon or caviar; the other in a tent on waste ground outside Liverpool known as Cabbage Hall, where the gypsy hosts provided eight hedgehogs, the dinner turned into a brawl, and the police arrived with truncheons to break it up.

The conflict invaded his private life. The Rai's young wife took second place to his adventures. She was left very much alone (even on the Christmas after the death of their second son in the war). Eventually they split up, with great and lasting bitterness on her side. The Rai spent far more time with his admiring disciples, the new young women undergraduates of Liverpool, who were all swept off their feet by philology and gypsy adventures. Sampson was a notorious philanderer. One of his students, Dora Yates, who became his (very proprietary) executor and the leading perpetuator of his work in the Gypsy Lore Society, was his mistress for years. In the archive, Anthony Sampson discovered some embarrassing love-verses between them, using coded Romani words:

"Always merry is the kari

Always doing funny things,

Mutering, karying, cumering, minjes

Always doing funny things."

There was a good deal more karying on. Another of the girl-disciples, Anthony Sampson discovered long afterwards, was the Rai's "other" wife, and had his daughter, who passed in the family as "Aunt Mary", a teacher from Edinburgh. And there may have been illegitimate gypsy offspring too. As for so many Romanophiles (including Augustus John) the romance of gypsy life was inextricably mixed up with the erotic allure of the gypsy girls. A boozy Lincolnshire rector, the Reverend George Hall, was fascinated by gypsies all his life because he had been in love with a gypsy girl in his youth: "whimsical as the wind, and brimful of mischief as an elf of the wilds, Sibby was to me the embodiment of bewitching mystery."

Anthony Sampson is not censorious about his grandfather, though it's clear that he was cruel to his wife, created terrible problems for his son, Anthony's father, and was disliked by many of his colleagues. The grandson prefers to think of Sampson's story as "a reminder that life can never be contained within the four walls of middle-class conventions", and to praise him for his dedication to a vanishing minority, whose 20th- century history this book sadly elegises.