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My family fortunes
An appointment with Eva Petulengro no longer takes place on the Palace Pier or in a booth in the seafront arches but in the ritzy surrounds of the latest Brighton hotel she has decided to call home.
She won’t live anywhere more permanent; she’s a Romany, she laughs, she doesn’t have it in her to stay put.
The clairvoyant, who in her glamorous heyday read the palms of royalty and film stars, has been retired from her trade for some years now and, at 71, is enjoying a relatively conventional old age playing granny to her four children’s brood. “I’m very strict darling,” she says, narrowing her eyes for comic effect. “They might get away with murder with their own parents but if I say ‘That’s it’, they know I mean it.”
She has seven grandchildren in total, two of whom are already showing signs of sharing “the gift”. Eva tells a story about her daughter Claire’s six-year-old Carmen reading the Tarot cards for her mother’s friend: “Claire’s friend had been having problems with her boyfriend and Carmen – who didn’t know anything about this boyfriend – said, ‘Don’t stay with that man’. She dumped him the next day.” She smiles, every inch the proud grandmother.
Carmen is being taught to read the Tarot as Claire was taught by Eva, whose own mother, the original Eva Petulengro, taught her. Romany life has changed almost beyond recognition in the past 50 years but there are certain traditions that continue to be passed down the generations.
It’s primarily for her family that Eva has just published her first book, The Girl In The Painted Caravan – a memoir of a Romany childhood.
She gave up life on the road aged 21, when her family reluctantly moved into a flat in Brighton, and her own children were brought up in bricks and mortar in the “gorger” (non-Romany) fashion. Busy writing the horoscopes that were syndicated to newspapers up and down the country, doing readings at charity balls and galas and making TV appearances, she had little time then to tell them about their heritage and wanted to write the book “so they would know”.
The timing couldn’t have been better, interest in this typically secretive race having been piqued by the controversial Channel 4 TV series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The programme rings no bells for her, Eva says, because it focuses on Irish travellers rather than Romanies. “They’re a totally different breed of people.” But it’s certainly not done her any harm; at the time of going to press, The Girl In The Painted Caravan was in the top five in the Sunday Times’ non-fiction paperback bestsellers list.
The world Eva describes in the book will no doubt seem entirely alien to her grandchildren; she writes nostalgically of falling asleep to the sound of rain on the roof of the family’s wagon or “vardo”; evenings sitting round a campfire eating meals foraged from the land; treating cuts and scrapes with a form of homemade penicillin taken from the top of a jar of jam. There was no school for Romany children; Eva taught herself to read and write, borrowing books on library cards with faked addresses. They were expected to start tending horses, cooking, sewing and looking after younger siblings before the age of ten. It was certainly not an easy life – winters were often harsh and animosity towards gypsies was starting to build – but it was a simpler one.
The move to Brighton turned out to be the making of Eva, who set up her own booth for “dukkering” (fortune telling) on the sea-front and through a relationship she’d struck up with Victor Gorringe, the editor of The Argus, ended up with her own horoscope column in the paper, which she was later to syndicate nationally. It was at a charity ball thrown by The Argus she first came to read the palms of the rich and famous and developed her reputation as a showbiz clairvoyant. In 1964, she told Paul McCartney he wouldn’t marry Jane Asher but an artistic American girl, and in 1970 she urged singer Kathy Kirby not to ditch boyfriend Bert Ambrose because he would die in 12 months’ time (which did happen) and she’d hate herself for it. She chuckles at the memory of meeting a young Prince Edward and telling him how he would leave the theatre (he worked for a production company at the time) and when he would marry. “After the reading, I asked him if he had any questions; he said, ‘Yes, do you know any good jokes because I have to do an awful lot of after-dinner speaking?”
It was also in Brighton she met her late husband John, a gorger boy and the love of her life. Though she knew he was the one when she met him, years of seeing clients with relationship woes – not to mention her mother’s troubled relationship with her gorger father – had made her wary and she forced him to wait three years until she agreed to marry him.
“I didn’t want to wake up in a week’s time and think, I don’t want to be with you. I wanted to wait until I knew I couldn’t live without him and I’d advise any girl to do the same.”
Aside from a shared sense of humour and forthright attitude, Eva was relieved to meet someone who didn’t see her as a curiosity. “He was the only guy who never asked me about my work, about the way we lived. I had drafts of my book when he was still alive and he never read them. He said he was waiting for the movie.”
She doesn’t regret that he never read it. “He didn’t need to, darling – he lived it! He’d come home from work and the lounge would be in the bedroom and the bedroom would be in the lounge because I needed a change of scenery.” She describes the terrible friction caused by her mother and father’s differing backgrounds but it was never an issue in her own marriage. John, she writes, sensing the old restlessness coming upon her again, would ask where she wanted to go next, bundle their sleeping children in their estate car and without another word they’d be on the move.
It’s only in the wake of her mother’s death Eva has felt able to write the book she wanted to write. She is candid in describing her feelings towards her father, who instilled in her a lifetime of mistrust when he invited her, as a little girl, to jump from the vardo steps into his arms, but moved aside at the last minute and let her fall into the mud, advising it be a lesson she should never trust anyone. He was, she writes, the first and only man to break her heart. “If my mother had read what I’d written about my father, she’d have been terribly upset,” she explains. “But I thought there was no way he was getting away with it.”
Eva had been making notes about her life since she was 20, but it fell to her daughter Claire – also a well-known astrologer who now writes The Argus’s daily horoscopes – to go through the numerous boxes and decipher them. Claire started to follow in the family trade aged 16, when she first joined Eva doing readings at a charity gala. Although she’d planned to be an actress, when she saw the throngs of celebrities, she told her mother she had changed her mind, saying: “I don’t want to be one of them, I want to be one of us. There are loads of them and there aren’t many of us.”
Claire is the only one to follow directly in her mother’s footsteps. Eva says her sons Gregory and Warren are also “very psychic” but, like many Romany men, don’t choose to use it. For her part, she plans to come out of retirement and return to dukkering in the summer. “I miss it,” she shrugs. “It’s a way of life. You can’t just turn it off.”
*The Girl In The Painted Caravan is published by Pan Macmillian, priced £6.99.
*Eva Petulengro can be contacted for bookings on 07771 802229.