Chapter 4: The Gypsy Blood

I was born a Geordie, on the banks of the Tyne in the north east of England. This was coal mining and ship building country harbouring plenty of poverty. Fortunately, along with that poverty, as is often the case, came a wicked sense of humour – a gift that sustained us through thick and thin. The rest of it – the itch to explore, the urge to cast off the traces – was all my father, although there were signs of it on my mother’s side.

Like many veterans coming back from the war, my father faced limited options when he returned to civilian life. Rationing was still in place. I remember my mother heading down to the shops clutching those green ration cards, and I remember the coal man, entirely covered in soot, delivering bags of coal to the back door – fuel for the fireplace that heated the house and cooked the food.

And this was a modern home. Our previous house had an outdoor toilet – a midden, shoveled out regularly by a man driving a rickety old truck. A lamplighter came by in the evening to light the street lamps. We even had a town crier strolling the neighbourhood at night. I still remember that voice echoing up and down the street:

“Eight’o clock and all’s well.”

It was a mighty comforting sound to a little kid nodding off to sleep.

The one modern thing we had going for us, electricity, required that you put coins in a meter box in the hall (if you had a hall). Of course as kids we didn’t have any idea we weren’t living in heaven. The only indication I had that all was not as it should be, was a visit with my Dad to his workplace. And that was an eye opener.

My father was a printer – a printer for the Shields Gazette. The brick building that housed the newspaper still stands. Currently it’s a boutique of some sort, but in the day it was a bustling industrial workplace; or maybe I should call it a workhouse, because the working environment was positively Dickensian.

It was, in fact, a pretty good reflection of the social environment in the U.K. at the time – a barely glossed, virulent class structure based on geography, occupation and dialect. Tyneside and Merseyside, along with all of the other marginalized areas of the UK, knew this social climate all too well.

That situation has changed with the leveling effect of education and technology, but remnants remain. An odd, if not unexpected, result of this historical discrimination is the currently rabid opposition to immigration and globalization expressed by my British brethren. Go figure. Classism and Racism – the gifts that keep on giving.

In any event, the lack of opportunity in the north-east England of the day, gave my father the impetus to pick up a wife and three kids, and ship off to Canada. I can only imagine what was going through his head the day he closed the door to 89 Oak Avenue for the last time.


To a blissfully ignorant boy of nine, of course, this was to be the adventure to end all adventures. After all, Canada was the land of the Rocky Mountains and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the months leading to our departure, I pictured myself strutting through the Rockies with pants tucked firmly into my rubber boots. Having seen the pictures in my boys’ annuals, I figured I had it right.

From what I could gather, the Mounties seemed to spend most of their time striding about their domain, stopping only to peer from under large brimmed hats, through half-closed eyes, at mountain vistas. It was something I was determined to be good at long before I arrived in my new home.

So I practiced in the back yard, striding and peering until my eyes got sore – a strategy I felt pretty well guaranteed that, upon my arrival, the RCMP would simply recognize a fellow officer and admit me to the fold without further ado – a fact that would impress the love of my life, Cathy Davidson, who sat across the aisle from me, no end.

On my last day of school, I was treated to a quintessentially British send off. Summoned to the headmaster’s office, I was handed a report card and a letter of recommendation to be passed on to my school in the New World. Along with it came a stern lecture on the proper conduct expected of an Englishman abroad. I remember being a little surprised and a tad uncomfortable at the time. What I didn’t expect was the flush of pride that coursed through me. At nine years old, evidently, I was already a card carrying member of the tribe.

Then in April of 1957 we climbed onto a Douglas DC-6 operated by the Flying Tigers – an outfit from the war trying their hand in the commercial aviation business. After 23 1/2 hours and one stop in Goose Bay, Labrador, (all noted very carefully in my diary), we landed at Vancouver International Airport.

I stumbled down the gangplank with butterflies in my stomach and a pair of seriously wobbly knees. Then, finally planted on the tarmac, I looked up at those huge mountains rearing out of the ocean, and my heart started pounding. ‘I’m here. I’m finally here.’

With fresh new air in my nostrils and a strange excitement rattling my bones, I felt like a newly hatched gypsy moth. Every cell in my body was screaming, ‘Hang on son, this is gonna be fun!’