Big fat telly

Channel 4's documentary series about travellers is misleadingly simplistic.

To watch Big Fat Gypsy Weddings on Channel 4 is to be bombarded with big fat stats: wedding dresses that weigh 16 stone, leaving indelible scars on the wearer; holy communion frocks that are twice the weight of their 12-year-old occupants. At one traveller wedding, even the icing on the cake comes in at a whopping nine stone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bridal rig that reached the greatest parodic heights belonged to a non-traveller, a "gadgi', who was marrying a gypsy and felt she had to out-travel the travellers. It was trimmed with battery-operated butterflies and fitted up with UV and fibre-optic lighting that meant a fire extinguisher had to be discreetly brought to church.

One watches these exercises in hyperbole with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The romantic notion of the rootless, horse-powered purveyor of the wild music that informed jazz and flamenco, and the snaking hips of Eastern dances, is quickly derailed by Channel 4's presentation: the soundtrack of choice booming from the party limos is electro-house by the Black Eyed Peas. The Appleby Horse Fair, a "major event in the traveller social calendar", sounds like an Arcadian pageant from a Thomas Hardy novel, but the young males who attend don't get beyond the car park. Here they size up flesh quite other than horse.

The hips are still snaking but they belong to the little girls: jet-tanned, spray-painted Lolitas, who appear to have picked up their outfit in Versace then left most of it at home, and who ape the moves of Shakira and Beyoncé; shanks and bellies bared for the consumption of others. In fact there's a whole lot of aping going on at these gypsy celebrations. Little distinction is made between factual and filmic, celebrities and cartoons (arguably quite rightly). The glass-coach is just like Jordan's; the cake is a model of the Disney fairytale castle.

The provocative show of breast and haunch sits queasily alongside a deeply conservative version of bygone Catholicism, where women cannot go out alone (or they are "scandalised", "filthy"), cannot drink or have sex until they are married, and are taken out of school and into domestic servitude at the age of 12 to swab out the trailer and rear younger siblings. It was hard not to be moved by the fear and the dread of one 13-year-old girl when confronted with her older sister's marriage, which marked the start of her own skivvying sentence.

Gypsy lads, on the other hand, are free to do as they please with their leisure, though they, too, are taken out of school in order to work. Whereas their girl-brides are so burdened by their giant dresses that they cannot walk (an evolutionary positive-feedback loop; the cost of display impeding basic biological function), the groom is free to strip to the comfort and ease of his vest. No amount of mealy-mouthed cultural relativism can talk away the Irish traveller custom of "grabs", where sexed-up swains extract a kiss from the girls by force. This assault is the courtship's opening gambit, the nail on which a lifetime's relationship hangs.

And yet some of what we experience when we watch the documentary is surely recognition: the traveller life holds up a mirror, albeit a fairground one, to the community at large. The featured Holy Communion dress was an exaggerated version of all the other creepy mini-brides of Christ; the church attendees were Lady Gaga-ed to the max, but not so very different from the show of plumage we are more accustomed to. Substance abuse with Carlsberg or Cloudy Bay -- the object of getting off one's face remains the same. The programmes concern themselves only with the major celebrations in traveller life, the times when they are at their most theatrical, as it were. Perhaps an unblinking gaze at the high days and holidays of Middle England would reveal similarly fantastical preoccupations with being a princess for one day, with price tags to match, in an otherwise unexceptional lifetime.

Not only is "them and us" a misleading binary (as the mild-mannered Romany Pat points out), but crucially the documentary fallaciously yokes Romany and Irish travellers together, neatly eliding the two with the tags "traveller" or "gypsy". This semantic amnesia conveniently ignores a complicated plurality of traditions and values, and is a mistake that "muscular liberalism" would do well to avoid. The Romany are no strangers to crude catch-alls: the very word gypsy is a misconception about their Egyptian origin. But then, more accuracy would mean less big fat telly.

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump