Invisible Ink: No 212 - Walter Starkie


Authors can be successful in their own right without impinging on the consciousness of an attention-deficient public, whose recall-rate of virals featuring inadequate Russian driving skills is above works by novelists who bring a lifetime of experience to their craft. Equally, critics will ignore writers who they consider solid and old-fashioned in favour of current literary darlings.

hile red-top press hacks lurk around Heathrow cadging soundbites from Romanians, mistakenly thinking they’re NHS-seeking gypsies, let’s look at a man who dedicated himself to Romany culture. Walter Starkie’s father was a Greek scholar, his aunt married Arthur Rackham, his godfather was Oscar Wilde’s tutor – how could he not have led a life of incident? But it was a bout of asthma that changed his destiny. Despite being a virtuoso violinist, this Dublin scholar, born in 1894, had become a Professor of Modern Languages (Spanish and Italian) at Trinity College. As his health worsened, he was rejected for national service and went to Italy with the YMCA to entertain the troops during the First World War.

After the armistice, Starkie became friendly with a group of Hungarian gypsy POWs, and helped them to make fiddles, taking a tribal blood oath with one. Later, he married an Italian Red Cross nurse, became a theatre director and Mussolini apologist, and was sent to Spain as the founder of the British Institute in Madrid.

Starkie had an interesting Second World War. Renewing his acquaintance with Romany people he eventually became known as a “modern-day gypsy”. His plane from Lisbon was shot out of the sky but he survived, to subsequently organise an escape route through the Pyrenees for British airmen downed over France. He and his wife allowed their flat to be used as a safe house for escaping Jewish refugees and POWs. He shared cigars with Churchill, and played violin for Federico Garcia Lorca. Did I mention he also climbed the formidable mountain of translating Don Quixote?

His reason for being in this column lies with a number of anecdotal travel books, Raggle Taggle: Adventures with a fiddle in Hungary and Roumania, its sequels, Spanish Raggle Taggle and Don Gypsy; The Waveless Plain: An Italian Autobiography, and The Road To Santiago. Because he was fluent in Romany dialects, he was able to become a folklorist for a people without an English-translated voice. The resulting volumes are far from drily academic treatises, but describe picaresque adventures involving stripping gypsy girls and wild fiddle nights of wine, circus, and revelry among these rambunctious, life-loving peoples. Not long after he had taken them to his heart, a great many were murdered in the Holocaust or displaced by war. The exotic world that Starkie, who died in 1976, described with such passion had gone forever, but his books remain – if you can find them – and there’s a biography by Jacqueline Hurtley.