No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby: On the road again

An important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere.

No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers
Katharine Quarmby
Oneworld, 320pp, £12.99

Images, rather than words, stand out when we look back on the long dispute over the Dale Farm travellers’ site in Essex: smoke rising behind TV reporters; a huge gantry defending the entrance of the six-acre former scrapyard near Basildon as police and bailiffs brought a ten-year saga to a traumatic, violent end. Those enduring pictorial memories are pertinent because – almost by definition – isolated, alienated communities such as this t one lack a voice. Or rather, their voices are usually drowned out by the powerful images in the public’s mind. Travellers? We know who they are. Tinkers, pikeys, didicoi. Dirty, violent, chavvy. The alternative, more romantic stereotype, of proud people who trade horses at Appleby and Stow, probably has the same degree of truth to it.

With the dust settling on the 2011 Dale Farm eviction, Katharine Quarmby attempts to fill in some of the missing words and to chart the relationship between the UK’s settled population and the nomads who live alongside it. The great strength of this book lies in the access Quarmby had to those whose story she seeks to tell. Guided by campaigners, she takes the reader into the homes of some of the families involved: the McCarthys, who defiantly took tea outside the high court as the eviction loomed; the Sheridans, who saw “settling down” as a way of providing their children with the education they’d never had. Through them – and with the help of a range of commentators and written sources – she charts centuries of discrimination, antipathy and conflict that led inexorably to where the Dale Farm families found themselves in the autumn of 2011 as the police and bailiffs closed in.

No Place to Call Home is best when it surprises. For instance, Quarmby gives voice to the frustrations of travellers who tried to keep open the lines of communication with local authorities and the police even as barricades were built and bricks were stockpiled. And she shows how the presence of activists who advised on tactics for resisting eviction was not universally welcomed.

The book is also successful in demonstrating that the fates of various traveller groups – Irish, English, Roma, even New Age – are linked by how the authorities treat them. For example, legislation designed mainly to curtail gatherings by “new” travellers has been applied to older communities, making the use of historic stopping places a criminal offence and dismantling the hard-won duty of local authorities to provide sites.

Yet most important is the human face the book gives to people often deprived of one. In this respect, the pictures speak loudest – Mary Ann McCarthy sitting on a neat leather sofa in her immaculate chalet at Dale Farm, vases and photos on the dresser giving the lie to public perceptions.

The book is a hard read if, like me, you listen with scepticism to pro-traveller activists who defend the flouting of planning laws and if you sympathise with local authorities caught between the warring factions. What were the Dale Farm families trying to achieve when they bought plots of land on the green belt and started putting down roots without recourse to the planning authorities? How could they have thought it was going to end well? Quarmby gets round to this, but she takes a while.

Writing about a separate dispute at a site at Meriden in the West Midlands, she describes the feelings of Senga Townsley and her family as they “pulled on” to a field owned by a friend, Noah Burton. Previously, the Townsleys had spent winters on a stud farm owned by Burton’s wife’s family, but when his marriage broke up they were left with few options.

Townsley recalls an earlier conversation with a friend who used the phrase “gypsy war” to describe moving on to land without permission. “You don’t want to do that, it causes real trouble,” she responded at the time. Yet later she found herself planning to do the same thing: “For me to sit here and say we didn’t know what we were doing would be a lie, but we didn’t understand the ramifications of it. We just knew this is what people did.”

Quarmby also takes time to ask some fundamental questions: what are the wider aspirations of the UK’s traveller communities? What do they want for their children? Do they hope to cling to the nomadic existence that their forebears lived for generations, dealing in horses, scrap metal and Royal Crown Derby china, or do they hope for a more settled life?

The book eventually provides answers: family, religion and a sense of community are most critical. Yet these are families without easy answers to how they can build a secure future for themselves while clinging to their cherished traditions.

Although it is slow to come to the point, No Place to Call Home is an important book that raises bigger issues about socially isolated and alienated groups everywhere. It underlines a truth – that a sense of “otherness” brings with it a dividend: it binds families and it binds communities.

Ask yourself this: why did the Dale Farm families live on the roadside near the site after the eviction, despite being offered housing and even other traveller sites? Without electricity or running water and with children ill and out of school, why did they not go? It was because the more hostile the world seems, the more your family – immediate, extended and wider, in the sense of clan or tribe – matters. They stayed there, together.

In some respects, it is the power of that sense of togetherness in these marginalised communities that keeps them apart from the rest. It will take much more than the combined force of local authorities, police, bailiffs and courts to break down that barrier.

Fran Abrams’s most recent book is “Songs of Innocence: the Story of British Childhood” (Atlantic Books, £20)

A family at the Dale Farm camp. Photo: Mary Turner

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times