Lives on the edge

Published in The Observer (August 26th, 2013)

No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies & Travellers by Katharine Quarmby (Oneworld)

Noah Burton was a skilled restorer of antique cars and caravans who lived with his wife and family on a stud farm in the Midlands. When his marriage broke up after 20 years, he moved without planning permission to a field he owned, sparking what became a bitter battle with neighbours involving threats and intimidation. For Noah was also a Gypsy and, as he later commented: ‘I never ever realised how much hatred there is towards me.’

This is nothing new. As Katharine Quarmby shows so clearly, there is a long and horrible history of hatred towards Gypsies and Travellers, from medieval days when they were killed, enslaved and branded in Britain to the slaughter of perhaps half of Europe’s Roma in the Holocaust. Their nomadic lifestyle arouses suspicion from settled communities, as remains all too apparent today, although I was amazed to learn that British state officials still wrested gypsy children from their parents in my lifetime.

This powerful book is, in many ways, a natural progression from the author’s previous – and brilliantly pioneering – work on hate crimes towards people with disabilities, another marginalised group condemned to the fringes by mainstream society. It arose from her coverage of the Dale Farm disputes for the Economist and in truth, there is too much blow-by-blow detail of this battle. It would have been good to have had more of those real lives promised in the title.

The picture she paints is pretty bleak, arguing convincingly that this population, as large as the Chinese community in Britain, is our most excluded group. Gypsies and Travellers are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to education, health and housing, with lower life expectancy exacerbated by living on polluted sites, often the only ones available. Women die 12 years before the national average, while children are at higher risk of dying in infancy and adults more likely to kill themselves. Yet local authorities, spooked by the hostility of residents, fail to provide enough sites. Tensions grow worse. Money available is not even spent, while national government weakened regulations to help sort the situation.

At least there is acceptance that overt bigotry towards people with disabilities is no longer permissible in polite society, for all the extreme problems they still face. Yet hate language is sprayed around with few complaints against ‘pikeys’, while few campaign for their cause. Councillors get just a minor rap on the knuckles for talking about bombing their sites and even Channel 4, which has made laudable strides on coverage of disability issues, feeds the stereotypes with freak-show programmes.

Quarmby wades into all this with typical fortitude, relying on sympathetic reportage and hard analysis. She finds a host of strong women in this supposedly patriarchal community, keeping their families together in the toughest circumstances. She accepts the arrival of caravans in an area has an impact on residents. And she does not shy away from criticising poor leadership in the community and pointing up divisions among the various groups of modern-day nomads and, indeed, at Dale Farm, between militants who flocked to the cause and those they claimed to be protecting.

Interestingly, she puts forward the case that while travelling people are frequently victims of abuse and violence that they do not bother reporting, given entrenched attitudes, crime actually falls around well-managed sites and Gypsy fair days. “Gypsies and Travellers are often victims, not perpetrators, of crime,” she concludes in defiance of the cliches. An important book by an impressive journalist, for all its flaws.

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