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December 12 2013 Latest news:
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Palmist and clairvoyant Eva Petulengro has been predicting fortunes on Brighton seafront for some 50 years. But few realise she is a genuine Romany gypsy, who was born in a traditional painted caravan. Interview by Angela Wintle
Eva Petulengrostill feels restless when the seasons begin to turn. When a chill wind blows off the sea, she often feels the need to pack up her things at whichever Brighton seafront hotel she currently calls home to move to another down the road.
I feel restless now, she says, sitting in the elegant lobby of her latest des res. When youre born a Romany, you will always remain a Romany.
This longing for new sights is one of the many legacies of her gypsy past. Eva, now aged 71, was born in a painted caravan, into a Romany family which travelled the roads of Norfolk and the Lincolnshire fens for generations.
Acutely in tune with the elements, she was lulled to sleep by the patter of raindrops on the caravan roof as she lay snug in her bed. Evenings were spent sitting round the campfire, laughing and sharing tales as their meal simmered in the pot, the tang of woodsmoke and savoury smell of meat juices mingled with herbs, making her tummy rumble with anticipation.
But when she turned 21, her family reluctantly gave up their peripatetic life to live in a conventional house in Brighton, forced off the roads by the winds of change dissolving their centuries-old traditions. By then, their picturesque wagons or vardos had made way for modern aluminium caravans pulled by cars rather than heavy, black-and-white cobs. And their culture and customs were becoming ever more diluted as Romanies married outside their race and adopted the conventions of gorger folk.
Id love to go back to that way of life, says Eva dreamily, though her elegant dress and manicured red nails suggest she has grown accustomed to five-star luxury. She looks at me through eyes heavily lined with kohl pencil: I cant remember any privations. We didnt know any better. I had the happiest childhood a person could hope for.
Petulengro will be a name familiar to generations of Brightonians, not least because Eva has been as much a fixture in the town as the Pavilion or clocktower, and has read palms on the seafront since she was a slip of a girl.
Everyone came to Eva. Stars performing at the Theatre Royal in Brighton often strolled to her booth on the Palace Pier and returned with friends. In 1962, Bob Monkhouse brought Michael Crawford, while they were co-starring in Come Blow Your Horn, and Crawford came back for several readings. We became friends, she says. And when I predicted he would become a famous singer and dancer, he said: Don't be silly, Ive got two left feet. Later, he made a film of that name.
Other clients included the young Prince Edward, whose palm she read at a charity ball, Joan Collins, Barbara Windsor, Shirley Bassey and Michael Caine. Her fame spread and she made a television appearance on the TV show Whats My Line? hosted by Eamonn Andrews.
But one of the highlights of her career came in 1964 when she read Paul McCartneys palm backstage at the Brighton Hippodrome. She rightly predicted that his then girlfriend, Jane Asher, would not be the one he married. Instead, he would wed a highly artistic, fair-haired American girl with an independent spirit, who would bring him great happiness.
The glamour of Evas new-found life was a poor substitute for life on the road, however, and her thoughts often drifted back to those carefree times. Now she has written a book recalling that lost life, principally written so her four children will never forget their roots. So much nonsense is written about Romanies that I wanted to set the record straight.
Some of her fondest memories are of her grandmother, Alice Eva, a beautifully dressed woman with the poise of a duchess. Grannys wooden vardo, the Rolls-Royce of caravans, was like a Wonderland to me, lit by two oil lamps with ruby-coloured glass shades which emitted a soft, warm glow, she says.
It was painted a rich ox-blood red with gold-leaf motifs, and inside, there were double beds, one above the other like bunks, the walls decorated with carvings and cut-glass mirrors engraved with birds, vines and flowers.
Usually, the wagons were pulled by a single sturdy horse, some 14 hands high, though two were needed for steep hills. As they roamed the countryside, they left bunches of sticks known as pukkering cosh in the road so that Romany families following in their wake might know the best routes to take.
Wherever they pitched, they erected large rod tents, known as benders, and covered the floor with a tarpaulin topped in turn by a vast Persian carpet. In winter, when the weather was fierce, the men would light a fire inside the tent, the smoke escaping from a hole in the top and spiralling into the cold air, she says.
Then the family would sit talking and eating, before singing and playing their instruments.
Supper was cooked in an iron stew pot suspended from a stake. They ate according to the season. Moorhen, partridge, wild duck and even baked hedgehog were favourite dishes, often accompanied by freshly picked field mushrooms.
They knew the usefulness of every living thing. Nettles furnished them with tea and beer; Fullers earth, mixed with lemon juice and water, made excellent face packs, and rosemary spikes, blended with southernwood, sage and bay leaves were used as hair thickener. They even invented their own penicillin from mould cultivated on the surface of uncovered jam pots.
But though their lives were wild and free, they lived by strict social conventions. The courtship of the Romany was vastly different from that of the gorger, says Eva. Even now, a Romany girl is a virgin when she marries, and she marries for life. And though marriages are not arranged, the parents usually have a mate in mind for their sons or daughters.
Unlike the elaborate weddings depicted in the recent Channel 4 series, My Fat Gypsy Wedding, Romany couples eloped and the ceremony came later, when the couple mingled blood by pricking their thumbs. Then the groom would jump over fire and water to signify that he would endure any dangers for his new bride. But the thing that marked out the Romanies most, of course, was their gift for clairvoyance and palm reading. Its a gift that has run in our blood line for centuries because our race is taught from birth to say how we feel and keep an open mind, says Eva.
She was just seven years old when she made her first prediction. She was at an air show when a young airman entered their caravan and asked if the kid would look at his hands. Eva examined his palm intently, trying to appear as mature and serious as possible, before suddenly feeling sick and dizzy, and running out. The next day the airman was killed.
Gradually, she grew more skilled at the art. Getting customers to relax is a skill in itself and sometimes we play the role of counsellor, sometimes of priest. Many of our clients see us as a friend, but one whom they can confide in, unlike their real friends who they fear will judge them. If they dont have anything interesting in their hands, or short lifelines, we always find something positive to say. Were there to make the client feel secure, not petrified.
Long before they came to Brighton, the Petulengros came to the attention of a wider public when Billy Butlin, himself a member of a respected fairground travelling family, asked if they would read palms each summer at his new amusement park in Skegness. Evas grandmother, who plied her trade in a cave-shaped booth fashioned from plaster, quickly became known as Madam Eva across the length and breadth of Lincolnshire.
But gradually attitudes hardened towards gypsy folk. Once farming families had welcomed the Romanies, who treated their animals and soothed their ailments with herbal remedies. But when gorgers also took to the travelling life, they spoiled things for the Romanies, who began to encounter signs warding them away.
Living on the road was not as easy or romantic as the gorgers had expected, and some degenerated into thieves and con artists, leaving litter and rubbish at the stopping places, says Eva. Soon, all travelling folk were branded hedge crawlers and dirty gypos.
Eventually her family took the difficult decision to abandon their travelling life after spotting an advertisement for a palmist in Brighton. Reluctantly, they sold their vardo and moved into a fully-furnished flat, which proved a huge culture shock for the young Eva. At night, she would strain her ears in vain to catch the soothing sound of the wind and rain.
Brighton had its compensations, however, and she quickly fell in love with its grand hotels and Regency architecture. And in 1960, she opened the first of many fortune-telling booths in a hut on the forecourt of a house opposite the West Pier.
But Eva wanted more, and when Victor Gorringe, the then editor of the Evening Argus, offered her a regular job as the papers astrologer, she jumped at the chance. Soon, her column was being syndicated in regional newspapers across the country. Now her daughter, Claire, has taken up the mantle, and is one of the countrys leading astrologers.
Eva never turned her back on her fortune-telling roots, and despite taking a year off to write her book, hopes to reopen her booth in one of Brightons seafront arches next year.
As she says, when you're born a Romany, you always remain a Romany.
The Girl in the Painted Caravan by Eva Petulengro is published by Macmillan at 6.99.