Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The Sky is as Blue as a Hedge-Sparrow’s Egg: Reading Romany by David Barnaby. Bookcase. £12.
A Methodist minister, roaming the countryside in a gypsy caravan, seems like a very odd media superstar.
Yet that is exactly what George Bramwell Evens was in the days before television was popular. Using the name ‘Romany’, he pioneered a series of children’s wireless broadcasts. He spoke directly about the natural world, the world of the hedgerows and the meadows and the riverbanks. For many children, brought up in the towns and cities of inter-war Britain, these unsophisticated programmes were a revelation. They brought the world of the countryside to life and fostered an interest and enthusiasm which was to remain with them throughout their lives.
Bramwell was born in Hull in 1884. His father was a Salvation Army officer then an evangelist preaching round the country. His mother was of Gypsy stock.
He came as a minister to Carlisle in 1914, during the first months of the war. “Bram,” as his wife Eunice called him, “had more chance of self expression in Carlisle than at any other period in his career.” The family – there was a two-year-old son, named Glyn – lived first at 35 Aglionby Street, before moving to The Lilacs at 21 Wigton Road. Bram was keen to enlist in the forces, but he had ‘a heart murmur’ and, much to his disappointment, he was rejected on health grounds.
Eunice wrote that, “Sleepy Carlisle woke up one morning to find an army of strangers in possession.” That army was composed of the workers who came to build the vast munitions factory at Gretna. Bram was instrumental “in persuading the authorities to construct a building that could be used as a social centre (it had a billiard table) and for religious services” at the far end of the new factory, at Dornoch. He bought a car, a secondhand Trumbull, for £20, to take him to the works.
In Carlisle, in order to involve the munitions workers, especially the hundreds of young women, he hired the Botchergate cinema during the winter of 1916. He engaged professional musicians and his unconventional services were packed. Their success, however, was not appreciated by many church-goers in Carlisle who felt that the cinema was sinful.
He had thrown himself into the concerns of the local community. He first took up his pen in support of the Control Board, which had sought to regularize drinking in the city.
In 1919, it was discovered that his Methodist Church in Fisher Street had dry rot in the roof timbers. The building was condemned. Bramwell set about the immense task of raising the £26,000 needed. Joseph Rank, the flour miller, offered £10,000 provided the money was used to build a mission hall and not a church. The eventual result was the church and hall that still stands in Fisher Street today.
In 1926, the family moved to a new pastorate in Halifax.
In his years in Carlisle, Bram had become a keen fisherman. His friend and mentor was John Graham, who became John Robb in the Romany books. In 1921, he’d bought his vardo, or horse-drawn Gypsy caravan and he began publishing articles on the countryside in The Cumberland News.
The radio broadcasts began in 1931. They were in the form of imagined country rambles with his cocker spaniel Raq and his friends Muriel and Doris. The programmes had an immediate appeal and were fondly remembered by many of their listeners in later life.
David Barnaby has written a delightful series of essays recalling many aspects of Romany’s life and work. He ranges from his interest in corncrakes, squirrels and badgers to his enthusiasm for tobacco.
Reading Romany is a celebration of a much-respected minister and a much-loved broadcaster and countryman.