Reading and writing have never come easy for me.
Even after Gypsy Boy and Gypsy Boy on the Run became best sellers, I still can't believe I was ever able to physically put pen to paper and complete even one page of them.
When I was a boy, I was like most Gypsies. School was never seen as something that would open up opportunities for our future.
We knew our future.
We would be living the same kind of lifestyle as our parents before us, and their parents before them: The girls would grow up to be wives and mothers, and the boys would knock on doors and do odd jobs for people, cutting down trees, fixing roofs and such. Also, the boys would have to learn to fight, and be able to compete with the many Gypsy men that would compete with and challenge each other to bare knuckle boxing matches up and down the country. Before I was 10 years old, it was commonplace to already be going out to work with my father as well as training at the many boxing clubs for Gypsy children.
Having to be in school five days a week would have gotten in the way of this. To Gypsies, school was always seen as a hindrance. To my parents, and so many others in my community, the "education of Gypsy life" was far more important than any written word, sum, or equation. So I only ever attended a school if the authorities actually came to the Gypsy camp and made it clear that the children living on it would have to go, even if just for the few weeks at a time that we were living in that area.
Adding to this, during my childhood, and still even to this day in some places in the UK, it was not looked upon kindly to have Gypsy kids attending public school, for fear that it would tarnish the school's reputation. We did end up going, but more times than not, we would be purposely kept away from the other children and put in a separate room with our own "Gypsy teaching teacher." That always seemed to be the compromise with the local parents and authorities. And the teachers that would be put with us would generally find educating us just as pointless as we found learning.
Each time we attended a new school, we would be put back through the same Alphabet songs and asked to spell words and phrases like "the cat sat on the mat." In all honesty, I much preferred watching Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch teach me words on Sesame Street. Heaven knows us kids from the camp all found it a lot more beneficial and fun. Even today I feel that I owe a hell of a lot of my learning to that show alone.
I attended school on and off until I was nine years old. After that I never attended school again, and remained on the move, working for my father until I ran away from home a few months before my sixteenth birthday.
I had run away with a man who was not a Gypsy. Being gay was not accepted by any means in our community and was seen as a disease that came from the outside . I had fallen in love, and the knowledge of having someone who loved me was the most incredible feeling I had ever had in my life. I believed that the best thing I could do for my family, to spare them the shame of a gay son, was to leave my home and my way of life for good.
Within weeks of running away, the love of my life left me. I was in a small town, far away from anyone I'd ever known. With no family, no friends, and no education.
I was lucky enough to scrape by with many dead end jobs, and while doing so I took my lost lover's advice, and started trying to catch up on the education I had missed. When a word was said that I didn't understand I was never afraid to ask its meaning, and I would try to add it to my vocabulary. I went back to practicing my alphabet and began reading newspaper articles and comic books. I was determined to prove to myself that my choice to leave home had been worth it. I forced myself to read the same books and comics every day, and also kept a journal, where I wrote about my progress and the life back home that I missed so terribly.
In my late teens, I got a place in a drama school. The main reason I had applied was simply because I wouldn't need all the qualifying tests that I should have acquired during school.
It was in the process of speaking words out loud from a page while studying theatre that I really began to feel the beauty in language and imagery. I began to see that a picture could be painted in a few words, if they were put down correctly and spoken right.
I had spent my whole time away from home, having to explain my life story to people. And so, during my time at this drama school, I felt that if I could write it all down I could finally lay it to rest. I wrote it in the way that I felt I could speak it aloud clearly. After I wrote a chapter about three pages long, which I was happy with, along with a one paragraph letter explaining my story, I sent it off to publishers. And I was lucky enough to have it picked up.
Less than a year later I had completed a whole book, Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies [St. Martin's Press, $24.99] all by myself, and it was one that I could be proud of. I had learned the true power of the written word. By making a record of your feelings and experiences they stay with you. And you can choose, if they are wonderful, to keep them fondly forever, and revisit them time and time again. Or, if they are a reminder of a painful time in your life, you can keep that record of it, read it, digest it, and then one day, finally let it go.
The process of writing Gypsy Boy was both cathartic and heartbreaking for me.
It still haunts me in little ways, both good and bad. But I am so incredibly proud of it, and the success and feedback it has received. It was the greatest therapy I have ever gone through.
I am not a writer. I am still learning every day. I only learnt what a noun and a verb were just a few months ago. But I accomplished writing these books through my determination to find my voice, to finally put my past aside and to look to my future.
Mikey Walsh left the Gypsy community and moved to London. It is the longest he's ever stayed in one place. He taught himself to read and write and now works at a primary school as a teaching aid and also picks up the formal education he missed out on as a child.