Red Catherine is Catherine Johns, a Romani living with her animals on a sprawling block between Mount Pleasant and Mannum. Max Anderson spends a magical hour in the company of a gypsy woman who has spent her life ‘on the drom in a vardo’…
Catherine, let me be honest, it’s not often you see a woman with tattoos on her face…
I was in a service station in Mannum and a young Aboriginal bloke said to me, ‘Aww look at you, you’re deadly! I never seen a chick with tattoos on her face before!’
I said to him, ‘Oh, aren’t you gorgeous, but I’m old enough to be your grandmother…’ People see my tattoos and they react differently. All of my tattoos have a story. Everything in my house has a story. I’m a Romani – I’m a story teller!
So tell us a story…
I went on the road with my father when I was about four. My father was a Romani and a bare knuckle fighter. We travelled in a horse and vardo – a gypsy wagon – from show to show, farm to farm, until he took a job looking after sheep on Anlaby Station for the Duttons. One time I got young Mrs John Dutton’s dachshunds stuck down a rabbit hole – all 14 of them. I thought they’d fit nicely and fed them one after the other into the hole. Of course they couldn’t go backwards so my father had to dig them all out. He was ropeable.
The Duttons were South Australian aristocracy – copper kings and sheep barons. A strange place for a gypsy kid to grow up?
I loved Anlaby! I never understood class, I still don’t, and I only knew the Duttons as family. I was a very gregarious child and would talk with anyone – people, ghosts, animals. All sorts of interesting people passed through Anlaby and I’d talk with them all, but only two people ever sat down so they could talk at my level – Googie Withers and Hans Heysen.
Another time, two men were visiting and they gave me two kittens. I decided to name them after the men, so I ended up with two cats called Sir Robert George and Sir Willoughby Norrie.
You’ve got a red dragon tattooed on the left side of your face, there are red dragons all over your house and a sign on the door reading ‘Beware of the Dragon’. Is that why you’re called ‘Red’ Catherine?
No – it’s my red hair! I spent some time at a women’s camp – the Goddess Conference camp in Aldinga – and there were two other Catherines, Black Catherine and White Catherine. I became Red Catherine.
And the dragons?
My father’s parents were Welsh. He left home at 10 and ended up on Kangaroo Island working with Clydesdales. During the war he fought in North Africa where he was injured; after that he spent nine years in Egypt as an archaeologist’s assistant.
But I also love dragons. I’ve always known dragons were real, until they were killed off and said to be vicious things. Now we’re killing off the tigers, the elephants, the lions, and one day there will be stories about how they too were ‘vicious’. We destroy everything. We’re not honouring life. The dragon is a symbol of a world that could have been and should be.
You talk a lot about your father. What about your mother?
My mother was from Kangaroo Island. She was Romani, too, but of Irish parents. She was stunningly beautiful, 6’2” and uneducated; she loved men, alcohol and cigarettes. My father was her ticket off KI. She was 14 years his junior and it was an arranged marriage: she gave him a baby and off she went. My mother came and went. She’d come and go all the time.
Today you’re surrounded by family – seven dogs that share your house, three Clydesdales, seven cats, pigs, goats and a galah called Socrates.
I love all things, but I can love no human like I love animals. Animals are the very marrow of my bones. Some people don’t understand it, but this is the path I walk.
I especially love dogs and horses. I’ve never known life without dogs; ‘dog’ is God spelt backwards and I believe they’re on this earth to teach us compassion.
Are you an activist?
Yes. I’ve run animal rescues – I still rescue animals – and I don’t agree with factory farms which are concentration camps. How can we do that? There will be no earth if we don’t look after the animals. But I’m hopeful because more and more people are looking and saying ‘this is wrong’.
Your 60+ year life journey has been an interesting one, so let’s take some waypoints. What were you doing at 21?
I was on the drom – on the road – heading to Melbourne. I drove a horse and cart, which was the last working baker’s cart in South Australia. I got it from Nailsworth Bakery. It’s in a museum now.
When I got to Melbourne I lived on the land in Mornington Peninsula, looking after rescued horses, but during the day I worked in a hospital.
I always worked my way. Once, I worked in a factory packing frozen chooks into boxes, but after three weeks I got the sack. There were 600 women in this factory and my friend Marco was from Uganda. One time she was hanging chooks on an overhead line which took them off to another part of factory. She liked to sing which was her way of coping, but one day, one of the pink women in the factory yelled out: ‘Shut up, n––––r!’
Marco says, ‘Whaaaat did you say?’
The pink woman goes, ‘I said, shut up, n––––r!’
So Marco – who was over six foot – took hold of her, picked her up and hung her on the line, which carried her off kicking and screaming over the heads of everyone in the factory.
The bosses came out to see what was going on. I stuck up for my friend and told them that this awful pink woman called her a name. They sacked both Marco and me. I walked out of that factory a vegetarian.
I understand you went back to school in Victoria…
I did my Year 12, then studied a Bachelor of Arts at Monash and a Bachelor of Education. I also did a sound engineer’s degree and presented a radio program for 10 years with Radio 3CR. I ended up head of Media Studies at Frankston College of TAFE and taught women’s spiritual studies. I used to take my Irish Wolfhound into classes with me.
Have you ever married?
No. I’ve had some wonderful partners, and one terrible ending of a long term relationship that left me devastated.
Let’s continue the journey. What were you doing at 41?
I’d returned to South Australia. At 40 I missed the smell of the gum trees, I missed the magpies, so I drove back in an eight-tonne truck. I lived in Meadows, Bugle Ranges, and 11 years ago I moved here to Angas Valley.
It’s a very safe area to drive horses – there’s hundreds of kilometres of dirt road – and I’ve got more space for my Clydesdales.
Have you only travelled in Australia?
I travelled in India, France, Greece, China, New Guinea… and I spent 10 days in Ireland with a horse and cart, which was wonderful.
How did the Irish react to an Australian Romani?!
Oh the Irish were fine, I got along really well. The problem was the Americans – they always wanted to have their photo taken with me! I kept saying, ‘I’m not Irish, I’m Australian!’
The Romani – the Roma, the gypsies, the travellers – have always been mistrusted and persecuted, especially in Europe. Why is that?
People are both fascinated and appalled by us. They’re scared of us. I’ve often wondered if it’s because we don’t have a country. Settled people have always been afraid of the nomads. As a Romani, I have no country, I have a world. Yes, I was born in Australia, I live in Australia and love Australia, but I believe we only have the earth. We obsess about borders and boundaries and ownership, but we don’t own anything – not land, not a husband or wife, and not animals.
People are also scared of us because we have magic.
Do you have magic?
Do you think I have magic?
By my definition of magic… yes I do.
Well there’s your answer. People ask me to read tea leaves – but I just have a great awareness of life and spirit. Plant a seed and watch it grow. Isn’t that magic? A few years months ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given a week to live. The doctors got in there and cut it out. When the tumour was diagnosed, people said to me, ‘It’s terrible!’ I said, ‘It’s not terrible, it’s life – death is part of the journey’. It’s how you choose to look at it. Like everyone else, I’ve got shit. I just plant flowers in it.
Finally what were you doing at 61?
At 61 I spent three months driving my gypsy wagon and my Clydesdale, Tigger, from Adelaide to the Flinders. It was amazing how many people said, ‘I remember you people! I remember the Gypsies!’ They remember us because the Gypsies have always been here. Romani was on the First Fleet. Today, there are 25,000 Romani that we know of in Australia.
You have four gypsy wagons in your shed, including the beautiful vardo which has a bed and a small wood burning stove. Where did it come from?
I got it from Castlemaine where it was left to rot, and did a full restoration. The chassis has a great turntable underneath so the horse and shafts can turn. It’s 70 years old and painted in the tradition of the Romanichals from the UK, who had the most beautiful coloured wagons.
It’s a lovely thing, and I presume has quite a light footprint on the planet.
It has. But I’m also rather fond of the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost! I used to ride with Old Mrs Dutton in her Silver Ghost – we’d get a bag of jelly beans and go feed them to the horses…
As a Romani and a story-teller, are you ever accused of making it all up?
I never tell a lie. I can tell whoppers – like when you break a chair and then spin a story how a monster came through the window and smashed the chair up…
But why tell lies when the truth is interesting enough?
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