In the 1970s, Nigel Parsons found himself working on the French grape harvest alongside five Manouche families. Initially, he was apprehensive as the French advised him to stay away from these groups. Despite their hard work, the Manouche were barred from the end-of-harvest feast and vanished overnight. All that remained were the blackened, burnt-out remnants of the fires around which they sang. Intrigued by what he saw, Nigel embarked on a thrilling journey of discovery which led him to live and work alongside this misunderstood group, learning their language and their culture, even embracing their belief, fear and respect of Beng (the Devil) and his shape shifting associates.
Whilst in their company, Nigel lived exactly as the Manouche did, travelling from place to place, under constant pressure to settle or move on from an unsympathetic government, and even experienced some hostility from the police himself. Throughout his time he gained intimate access to this unique way of life; long, companionable evenings around the campfire, playtime with the children and dedication to a life of hard work.
After working with the Manouche for a season, Nigel returned to England, but found himself unable to forget their campfires, their music and their dancing. In some ways, this was not surprising to him because he had spent the majority of his life travelling.
Nigel had in fact, travelled all his life to all corners of the world, going wherever the army sent his father – Egypt, Singapore, Malaya (as it was then), Nepal and Germany – until he left school and just carried on drifting. He went to travel again, through Italy, Greece and Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan he rode a horse along with a German traveller and his Swiss girlfriend for several weeks, past the ancient and famous Bamiyan statues of Buddha, since destroyed by the Taliban, up to the crystal turquoise lakes of Band-e Amir. He crossed the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, took a train down into India, flew from Calcutta to Thailand, and travelled by train to Malaysia and onto Singapore, where he boarded a ship to Australia, landing in Perth. After six months he started moving again, to New Zealand first and then through southeast Asia to Hong Kong,
His own nomadic lifestyle led Nigel to have an affinity with the Manouche, so he eagerly returned to France to join the group several times over the subsequent years,
“The constant moving meant I didn’t feel I really belonged anywhere, and with the Manouche I felt that bond of the road. In the end I think all nomads, whatever level their nomadic life is lived on, belong to the same netherworld; we’re all running from nowhere to nowhere. We might try to dress it up as freedom, but the reality is people keep moving because they have no roots, no land to call their own, just the fugitive mentality of outsiders. Maybe it goes some way to explaining how and why I identified with the Manouche, and maybe it goes some way also to explaining why they one day accepted me as one of their own,” explains Nigel.
Manouche – Living with the Gypsies of France transports the reader to the heart of Manouche community and paints a vivid picture of their working lives, relationships and the downtime of a community often overlooked by many. Not only does the reader get to learn about Nigel’s fascinating personal journey, but also how the Manouche community has evolved over time and their own path towards societal acceptance. Manouche – Living with the Gypsies of France offers a truly unique perspective, shining an important light on a forgotten community.
Nigel finally returned to England for the last time, putting his Manouche adventures to pasture. Naturally, as life took over, he lost touch with the Manouche, but Nigel’s experiences had a lasting impact; those really had been some of the happiest times of his life. He had kept diaries of experiences and taken hundreds of photos, occasionally looking back on these and reminiscing on old times. Then, after almost thirty years, he decided to set out once more in search of his old friends. Travelling back to France, Nigel tracked them down and reconnected with them after decades spent apart.
“Having relived my time with the Manouche through writing the book, it was wonderful to be able to complete the story by reconnecting with them after so many years. It was a very emotional moment and we spent hours recounting the tales of our time together,” explains Nigel, who continues to maintain regular contact with his Manouche friends.