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When my grandfather moved down from Scotland to the Midlands in the ’30s, he was one of the only GPs who would offer treatment to the gypsies and travellers who still passed through the area, camping on pit bonk or unclaimed land. As far as he was concerned, travellers had as much of a right to health as the next man. The first rule of medicine was that everyone should be treated the same. Unsurprisingly, word of this soon travelled. Gypsies needing a doctor would come from miles around, draw up their horse-drawn caravans along the street outside his house, and wait to see him.
By the time my father joined the practice in the ’60s, the horse-drawn caravans were gone. Some of the gypsies were settled in council sites, and those still on the move would park up on the little open land that remained in their vans and trucks and caravans, their lifestyle less and less welcome in an increasingly built-up world. They knew of the doctor who would come to visit their sick children, even if they didn’t know who he was, and they kept his number on slips of paper, and found a pay phone whenever the need arose.
I knew all this, of course. When my mom died, and I learned how quickly the tales you promised yourself you’d listen to one day became locked-up secrets no-one could ever tell, I made a point of spending time sitting with my dad and asking him about his life. I’d listen to what he told me, commit it to memory, and write it up on my computer.
What I didn’t know, till this week, was that the gypsies and the travellers would pay my father, press notes into his hand just as they’d done with his father before him. It didn’t matter that he explained there was a National Health Service now, that he was already being paid for visiting them and treating them, and they didn’t need to do this. Their code of honour meant they wouldn’t take treatment for free. My father’s code of honour meant he wouldn’t keep the money, so – although he wasn’t a religious man – on his way home he would pop into the church where my mother went to mass, and stuff the money into the box for collections for the poor.
Some things you only learn when the person is gone. I’d thought I couldn’t be any more proud of my dad and what he did. It turns out I was wrong.