Mikey Walsh told his story of growing up a gay Romany in Gypsy Boy. As he continues his tale with a sequel, he says that being frank about a secretive community has cost him dearly
MIKEY Walsh doesn't think of his life story as tragic. He lives where he's always wanted to live (London), has a job he loves (as a teaching assistant in a school for children with special needs) and his 2008 autobiography, Gypsy Boy, topped the bestseller list and is being made into a film. Where's the tragedy?
But things weren't always like this.
Born into a Romany Gypsy family, Walsh (a pseudonym he adopted to protect his identity – he won't show his face in photographs for the same reason) grew up in an almost closed world, living in a trailer that was moved between camps across the UK. He hardly went to school, kept his distance from the "gorgias", non-Gypsies, and learned the strict codes of his community – often by the hardest of hard knocks.
His was a world in which boys worked from the age of 12, were expected to marry at 16 and got their fun from brutal bouts of bare-knuckle boxing.
Walsh is the first to say that his childhood was not typical of every Gypsy experience, but he's also almost shockingly honest about how hard it was. He was beaten by his father, abused by his uncle and, at the age of 15, knowing that he was gay and realising that life for him at home was going to be impossible, he ran away. Coming from a community in which guarding tradition and secrets was a way of life, he knew that once he'd left, he could never go back.
Gypsy Boy was a huge and unexpected hit. Walsh was one of the first Romany Gypsies ever to write a book. It told a story that had never been heard, of a community that had never been documented. He portrayed an amazing cast of characters and simultaneously presented a culture in which he couldn't survive, but of which he was also proud.
"I'm so proud of what I am," he says on a glitchy phoneline, in between gulps of coffee and puffs on his cigarette. "I'm proud of being a travelling man. But at the same time, I never set out to be a spokesman for Gypsy people."
In his first book, Walsh documented his childhood up to the point of running away. He continues the story in Gypsy Boy on the Run, telling what happened when he found himself, at the age of 15, banished from his community, with Gypsy men looking to claim a bounty on him offered by his father.
He might not want to call it tragic, but life was far from easy. Walsh was removed from everything that he'd known. He was broke, he couldn't read or write. The relationship he was in broke down and he was, once again, alone. He doesn't analyse, he doesn't dwell, he doesn't look back. It's not just the way that he writes, it's how he lives.
"I can't stand self-pity. I can't deal with it," he says. "I think it f***s up your life if you never let go of your past. I couldn't live with myself if I was like that. You've got to forgive and let go because otherwise you can't live.
"I saw Gypsy Boy in the Tragic Life Stories section of WH Smith the other day and it made me gag. I don't see the book as a misery memoir. I'd never say 'pity me', or 'my life was cruel'. It's not like that. If it wasn't for everything that's happened to me and everywhere that I've been, I wouldn't be where I am now."
In a way, the first book took Walsh almost 15 years to write. He'd been thinking about it from the age of 15, as he moved around from Manchester to London, teaching himself to read, miraculously ending up at Guildhall studying drama ("I never wanted to be an actor. I just thought that was literally all I could do."). For the second book he had a much shorter time – four months – but he felt he needed to end the story, partly for himself and partly for the hundreds of people who'd got in touch with him (he's a prolific user of Twitter, going by the name of @thatbloodymikey) to find out how his story played out.
It's clear that he's proud of his book – why shouldn't he be? His life has been an extraordinary battle and he's survived, a testament to his own determination and will as much as the odd adult who showed a tiny bit of kindness – the primary school teacher who brought him back a gift from a school trip he wasn't allowed to go on, the college tutor who told him to believe in himself, that he could do anything he wanted to. Tiny gestures but to a boy struggling to find a place in the world, lifelines that would help him to survive.
But the consequences of pouring out his life into two volumes of autobiography have been mixed, he says. He is in contact with his family – the second book is dedicated to his father – and he says they've been "amazingly supportive" of his writing. But some of the more traditional members of the Gypsy community still reject him for being gay, and even among his friends there has been fallout.
"People don't really know what to say," he says. "I didn't need them to say anything but it was like they were reading the book and it was like a bomb falling from the sky. So because they didn't know what to say they would just stop texting or calling. A lot of my friends just disappeared. It was very strange."
After the success of the first book Walsh felt like he had a duty to say everything was great, but in fact he was lonely. His searing honesty about his family, and the violence he experienced, at the hands of his father in particular, led people to criticise his family, which is something he found very difficult to cope with.
"I felt bad," he says. "I felt there was just so much more to my father than just being a bad guy. He's a complex, incredible person. He was brought up this way too.
"It was very difficult. It's weird to feel so sensitive, hearing people not only criticising your story, but really your life."
Walsh says his story is for anyone who ever felt that they didn't quite fit in, or believed that they were alone. His job has been to tell his own story, but in doing that he's told a story about a little-known community and way of life and also about what it can be like to grow up gay. It's clear that it's something he's glad that he's done, but it's clear, too, that there has been a cost, although as ever, Walsh looks on the bright side.
"I'm glad it's done now," he says. "It was about forgiving and letting go and also appreciating all the incredible things that can happen in your life. The hilariously funny things, the beautiful moments, moments of pleasure, as Kate Bush would say."
"It was a little bit like taking the ring to Mordor. And now I just can't wait for the sun to come out and for no one to care who I am but to know that it's a good book."
• Gypsy Boy on the Run by Mikey Walsh is published by Hodder & Stoughton, 12.99. This article first appeared in The Scotsman on Saturday 16 July 2011